Fight the power
Denzel Washington takes it to the streets as an old school lawyer forced to reboot his life for modern times
Roman J Israel, Esq, the title character played by Denzel Washington in Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy’s new movie, is old-school personified. He wears his hair in an afro. His apartment is a shrine to Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, black activists from another era. His flip phone buzzes to Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’”. Even his iPod Classic — Israel’s one concession to the current century — was discontinued in 2014. (The courtesy title gilding his already grandiloquent name was something of a throwback even in 1933, when the US parent of this magazine was founded.)
Israel toils behind the scenes in the office of William Henry Jackson — and has done so, the film implies, since the extra-wide lapels on his purple suit were in fashion. While Jackson does battle in court, Israel tends to the unglamorous paperwork, an arrangement that has left him in a state of arrested development, his principles in mint condition.
When Jackson goes into a coma, the middle-aged Israel is forced to make his way in the real world, where survival comes first. “Tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he faces a choice: keep on truckin’ or, as the kids say, you do you. If Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, was like a digital-age Ace in the Hole (1951), Roman J Israel, Esq can perhaps best be described as The Verdict (1982) meets Being There (1979).
In many ways, Israel and Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom — two of the more original movie characters in recent memory
— are mirror images. Bloom is a sociopath; Israel is a saint. Neither is fully human, and Gilroy milks their peculiarities for laughs. But ultimately the director is concerned less with their interior lives than with the reactions they provoke in others and what that reveals about them and us.
Gilroy was a successful screenwriter-for-hire for 20 years before he wrote the spec script that became Nightcrawler. “I — finally, in my 50s — found my voice,” he says. He wrote Roman (also on spec) with Washington in mind. “I’d always wanted to work with Denzel,” he says, adding, “I wasn’t going to do it if he passed.”
It’s tempting to say that Washington transformed himself for the role, but in fact he put a lot of himself into it, from the Al Green LP on Israel’s hi-fi to the gap in his teeth which, surprising to learn, he was born with. The real surprise, however, is that an actor known for his magnetism has within him an invisible man — “the kind of guy,” as Gilroy says, “you would pass on the street and not give a second look.”