You know you have seen a special film and a transcendent performance when you find yourself thinking about it even more the second day AFTER you saw it than you did during the first. I caught Denzel’s latest joint Roman J. Israel, Esq. at the early show on Sunday and by Monday afternoon I realized that I had been revisiting it the whole day asking friends who had seen it for their recollections and reactions after letting it set in for a day.
I was glad to know that I wasn’t crazy because they confirmed what I suspected: this performance by Denzel Washington was uniquely penetrating even for the greatest actor of our time. The lines that he delivered as this quirky, reclusive, under-achieving lawyer stuck in an idealistic time-warp hung on your heart in a way that echoed the lasting impact of his Oscar turn as the tragic yet majestic runaway slave tuned Union soldier “Tripp” in 1989’s Glory.
The story may have appeared to be a “paint-by-numbers” legal drama as many reviewers have charged but they miss the larger point: We have all BECOME paint-by-numbers characters in a world that has us all serving a system rather than working to create and re-create systems that serve our humanity. That is a poignant message that I hope you don’t miss when (not if, but when) you go and support this act of service to mankind packaged as holiday season movie squeezed in-between Disney and super-hero blockbusters.
This is a film that will remind you of why you love films in the first place. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a guy you cannot help but attach to emotionally as he is making absolutely no effort to be reached at all- he is perfectly content living inside of himself because his work as a criminal defense lawyer in urban Los Angeles has shown him in stark terms that the world around him is ugly, cynical, and unjust. He is just not into it so he stays inside of himself where it is still 1969 when people believed that what they did actually shaped the world for the better. His ideal was to try to do right and make things better- always favoring community over vanity.
We have never seen Denzel like this before- playing a character that is as dowdy and awkward as he is brilliant, as powerful as he is vulnerable, and undeniably valiant despite his distressing victim-hood. To say that the titular character is an unusual guy is an understatement. In his every manner of communication and projection, Roman seems to be meek but he is oddly confrontational in his soft-spoken way. And he is completely unfazed by powers that appear to be far greater than he. It is no surprise that in the end we are inspired and moved by his journey to manifest his purpose and to walk it his way. You will most certainly laugh at how Roman handles himself sometimes but you are not mocking him- you are just amused by how cavalier he is about your laughter.
There are so many memorable lines in this film that they need to make a calendar of daily devotionals featuring this character. Perhaps the simplest and most poignant of them all was his plain statement to the lovely leading lady (whose interest in him makes him stutter uncontrollably for one of the funniest and lightest moments of the movie) “my lack of success has been self-imposed.” Well damn. How valuable a realization is that for how many of us? Thank you, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Like you did with those you shared your life with, you snuck up on me, then you moved me and then you inspired me. That is no small achievement. I hope you feel the same as I did WHEN you see this movie in theaters, my friends. Denzel remains and shall always be THE MAN.