Fight the power

Den­zel Wash­ing­ton takes it to the streets as an old school lawyer forced to re­boot his life for mod­ern times

Esquire (UK) - - Culture - Fight the power words by Ash Carter

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.”

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