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Why I Rushed To See ‘Flight’ And Not ‘Lincoln’…

Why I Rushed To See 'Flight' And Not 'Lincoln'...

Where in the hell are we? There is controversy because Denzel Washington may receive an Oscar nomination for “Flight”?! Here we go again, another negative portrayal of a black character gets an Oscar nod? Is anyone paying attention to craft? Did you see Denzel’s performance in “Flight”? It is is fantastic. Mr. Washington delivers. Denzel is a force. He’s one of the best actors of our time. So, when I was asked, “what do you think about the current controversy over Denzel’s performance in “Flight”, I thought, are you kidding me? The only thing that we should be discussing is how brilliant his performance was.

Since Aristotle, DRAMA has been about tragedy. The best dramas are about a character who is trying to overcome something. Pulling the “dignity” card does not apply here. What are people looking for in drama? I am not interested in stories that do not have characters who face trials and tribulations. After all, we all do. Art is simply replicating what goes on in our ordinary lives. Art dramatizes it, hopefully, spins an interesting tale around it and lifts it to teach us something about ourselves. This is exactly what “Flight” does. Are there no black men who are alcoholics or addicts?

Yes, there is a very narrow range of black characters coming out of Hollywood. And, as someone who still refuses to see “The Help”, I can understand the frustration. But, “Flight” is not “The Help”. The problem with these discussions is that they are never about the craft. If we discuss craft, we will begin to assess films without emotion but with a critical eye. As we bring a more critical eye to movie viewing, we will demand better movies. It is about context and authentic representation.

“The Help” was a “Disneyfied” view of black experience (and, white experience for that matter). “The Help” was offering us bright colors and music with underdeveloped characters and plot points. Yes, I could see all of that in the trailer. “Flight”, on the other hand, is a well-crafted screenplay with characters who face human challenges. The soundtrack rocks and is not there to provide a glossy view of the ills you are witnessing. The soundtrack serves the drama. Whereas with “The Help”, the soundtrack is there to distract you from, lighten and downplay the drama.

Denzel Washington is a craftsman. This was not a performance where Denzel was falling down drunk without purpose. After I saw the film I thought, if Clooney was the lead he would be nominated for an Oscar. Denzel better be nominated! Only to hear that some black folks are angry that he will get nominated for playing “another bad guy”. Denzel gave a great performance, shouldn’t he be nominated for that?

The black ‘dignity police’ are judging films without any consideration for the craft. I have said nothing about the Zoe Saldana controversy. She is an actress! She should be allowed to play whoever she wants. Did you see “La Vie En Rose”? Marion Cotillard transformed her physical appearance to play Edith Piaf. And, she hit a home run. Zoe Saldana has the right to portray Nina Simone. The opportunity to play Nina Simone should be a goal for any actress who is serious about the art form.

Mind you, I don’t think anyone will capture the nuance that is Nina Simone. The mold was broken when she was made. People may get aspects of her, but, capturing the full Nina requires that someone understand her shoes. Genius shoes are impossible to fully comprehend. But, let’s see what Zoe can do. I admit, I’m nervous about the screenplay, for me, that’s the blueprint. And, it looks like they are building from a specious blueprint. But, I’m not going to knock Zoe for accepting the challenge.

“Flight”, however, started with a strong blueprint. I saw ‘Flight’ twice. I loved it. The second time, I was fortunate to be at a Q&A with the Director Robert Zemeckis and Screenwriter John Gatins. With a budget of $30 million, how they got the film made is the important story. Director Zemeckis said that Denzel’s long time Agent passed away. Before he died, he gave Denzel two screenplays: ‘Safe House’ and ‘Flight’. Denzel and Zemeckis believed in the screenplay so much that they waived their fee. Now, I love movies and I believe that the money that is being doled out for movies is ridiculous. But, these are the times we live in and taking a pay cut for a film, for these two heavyweights, is a big deal. They did it for the love of the story.

Not only that, the film is not all negative. The ending (and I won’t give it away) was hopeful, thoughtful, profound. We live in a culture that is mired in “who can lie and manipulate the best”. This film pierces that veil and feels like a breath of fresh air. Especially when the son questions his father. That was a moment that many Black males (females and other races for that matter), who lost their fathers to addiction, could understand. His character is not ALL “bad”.

“Flight” works for many reasons. The main reason, as an informed NYU undergrad film student named Rachel Johnson put it -is because of Denzel. If Denzel wasn’t in it, we might not have been so forgiving of the holes in the film. Denzel Washington is our Cary Grant. He is one of the premier acting forces of our time. Although many are exhausted by “Denzel’isms”, we should not undervalue the power of his acting chops. Denzel is so familiar to us that we look for his moves. The first time I saw the film, I was in Brooklyn, people were talking to the screen like Denzel could hear them. “No, Denzel!” “Don’t do it, Denzel!” That was a beautiful thing to behold. He is so effective that people feel connected to him. That did not happen by mistake.

Denzel is close to us, he is in our hearts, we have grown up with him. And, in this film, we see him growing older, being a different kind of man. It is bittersweet to watch Denzel age. And, yet, I feel fortunate to witness his journey on the screen. But, some things about him never grow old, like that signature walk. And, let me tell you, he gives that Denzel walk twice. Those moments, alone, were worth the price of admission. Much of the performance in ‘Flight’ was delivered through facial gestures, physicality. I was in awe of his performance, how he knows where the camera is and just the right amount of emotion or movement to give to it.

He should be honored for this performance. And, I would recommend that people see this before they see “Lincoln”. “Lincoln” has been marketed down our throats. Okay, I get it, noble white man freed us. America loves its mythology. “Flight” pierces mythology. It was more important for me to see a black man, in this industry that deifies whiteness, be my hero. I am grateful that Lincoln freed the slaves so that I could see Denzel’s performance in “Flight” (and, “Glory”. and, “A Soldier’s Story”.)

Director Robert Zemeckis said that Gatins, the screenwriter, was his “creative soulmate” during the shoot. They drove, together, to set everyday and discussed the nuances of the film, exhaustively. He believed that if Gatins created this film, from his imagination, he needed to be there during the development of it. It sounds as if Tony Kushner was given a similar pedestal with “Lincoln”. Okay, well, he’s Tony Kushner. And, Zemeckis and Spielberg are long time friends and the “elite” of Hollywood. But, it was heartening to hear about the struggle for Denzel and Zemeckis to get this film made.

More filmmakers should be presented with the challenge to create films, that they believe in, with smaller budgets. It forces them to bring the heart out of a movie. And, places less emphasis on overuse of technology. I am an eternal optimist. If the “big guns” move to take on smaller stories that move them and we support them, let’s hope that that opens up the marketplace to newer voices.

The fact that Denzel and Zemeckis believed in the words on the page is worthy of support. Denzel connected to the character’s journey and felt it important to bring it to us. He earned his Oscar nomination. If he gets it, let him have it without all of this fury. Please, can we support his performance and the message of the film? Heck, my fantasy is to see Denzel Washington play Troy Davis. But, that’s my fantasy. As Chinua Achebe says, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” In the meantime, let’s give honor, to the craft, when it’s due.

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on my facebook at visit

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Sharon Kyle

Love your analysis except for the lack of discussion of Alcoholism as an illness as oppossed to a personal failing. An alcoholic is no more a "bad man" than a man with cancer. Denzel's brilliant portrayal of a person suffering from this dreaded disease is spot on. There is nothing here for the dignity police to complain about.


The problem appears to be that too much is emphasis is placed on popularity, as opposed to actual talent and performance. While we're talking about all of these popular people that have been stuffed down our throats for the last couple of months or so, it would be great if we could get back to a time, when if a performance was simply great, people were told about it and we ended up knowing a new name or two. Omar Sy is absolutely fantastic in Intouchables, and last year, he became the first black man to win the French Oscar for Best Actor, beating his countryman who won the American Oscar for The Artist. This is not to take anything away from Denzel, John Hawkes, Hugh Jackman, Joaquin Phoenix, Bradley Copper, the BIG names so to speak. Actually Hawkes is not a big name, but he's in a picture based on a true story and he's playing the kind of part that gets attention. Bill Murray is playing FDR in a movie getting mixed reviews but he's wonderful in it. Problem: He's playing the wrong president, so what's really sad, is that none of this is about sheer acting and that's all that it should be about, period.

Somewhere along the line, we've gotten lost in this thing whereas if someone plays a "real" person, especially a famous one, that person wins the Oscar. Why? This is not to say that this should not be the case sometimes, but is it a given? People have practically given the Oscar to Day-Lewis already! Meanwhile, people appear to be overlooking the brilliance of Quvenzhane Wallis's performance in Beast of the Southern Wild, just because she is so young. No one, and I mean NO ONE, has given a better performance than she has this year and she carried that entire film on her young shoulders, and people appear to be crediting everyone but the young actress for that performance. It was wonderful when Dwight Henry won the LA Film Critics Best Supporting Actor award on Sunday for the film, as he's been getting the same kind of brush over. We have the SAG nominations coming on Wednesday, and if they do not find a way of nominating those two, it will be the biggest shame of all. Forget about fame, forget about age, forget about everything: Just judge the acting, just evaluate the performance on its own merit. Someone commented on Marion Cotilliard in La Vie En Rose. Her work in Rust and Bones is even better, but it is a difficult performance to stomach, but if we just go by actual performance, then we might be talking about Oscar number 2, but chances are she will not even make the final five, given Riva will most likely get in for Amour, and mind you, Riva is brilliant as well. Going back to the last win by Day-Lewis, can anyone say that the brilliance of his Daniel Plainview character is greater than that of the current Paul Thomas Anderson film that Phoenix has embodied? I think not, and it would be interesting to see what people might be saying about a win for The Master, had that been Day-Lewis in the role. Want to see a fantastic performance that will be totally overlooked: See Denis Lavent in Holy Motors. He's come in runner-up in several Critics awards and there is no mistake. He's absolutely brilliant. While we're so busy thinking about the big names that may win Supporting Actress, see Anne Dowd in Compliance. Acting is all that should count. Denzel played a bad character in Training Day. so what? It was his best performance up to that point and he richly deserved the Oscar that he won for it. He is equally brilliant in Flight. What makes both so good is because we know that he's acting, although he's so real in the parts, he makes us hate what we're seeing, but we must be realistic: Bad and good come in all sizes and colors and these are actors doing what actors should be doing: Playing parts. Let's stand back and let them do what they do.


No comment on "Flight," but will comment on Zoe as Nina in Blackface.

People often say that Denzel played Malcolm X and he was not light skinned. True, but Denzel did not paint his face 'red' or 'light' to play the character. Zoe is going "Blackface." That's what's so offensive. Consider the fight we had to go through to force Whites to stop mocking us Black people with the Blackface on TV, movies, and cartoons. Our children were exposed to this mockery. If you pay attention, not just with Zoe, but within society at large, Whites repeat their racism. To them, they revert to what they know in their culture of racism in order to portray Black people. I'm not sure Zoe, coming from a differeent Black culture, understands this. Had she done Nina without the Blackface, I would not have thought twice about it. It's the BLACKFACE mockery that she's participting in. This will be the end of her career, and she will have added to the Blackface legacy of African American history. Say whatever you will, but she will never outlive this. She can not let White people use her to do this and not expect consequences.


I saw Flight twice as well. Thank you so much for mentioning craft. We need to get out of the habit of looking at the roles and pay attention to the gift.


Black PeopleLOVE to police! But more importantly, it is the Upper and Middle-crass, fake bourgeoisie that do it. You DO KNOW where they got this behavior from? Eugenics and social Darwinism. It was around the 1900's when white folks were trying to detach themselves from slavery by saying they were Superior and Blacks were savages. They showed Photos of Africans in their indigenous environments to prove Blacks were uncivilized. Thus, Blacks back then started marginalizing each other and RESPECTABILITY became the end all and be all. Hence policing. As long as you had a JOB, you were given a nod of credibility. If youza Drunk, you get belittled. Nowdayz we should know, everybody no matter how respectabile their ROLE lives a Real life. Hence, Petraus, Strauss-khan, clinton, jessie Jackson….. shall I go on??? Moral of the story, THE POLICE, got the most dirt to hide.

Michael Herbertson

I completely agree with you. But someone's in trouble. Given that Daniel Day Lewis (Over-rated, 'disneyfied' as you call it / watered down, in my opinion) is a lock for the nomination and probably the win as well. There's four open slots for five strong male performances: John Hawkes, Hugh Jackman, Joaquin Phoenix, Bradley Copper and Denzel….Someone's gonna get left out. Who?


The thing with FLIGHT was that feinted a story about a miraculous plane crash with a heroic pilot.Like it tryed in a way to syke out the audience,then turned into a substance abuse movie .The whole substance abuse angle felt like another beating to and already dead horse .Also let's keep things in they're proper perspective . A Craftsman is :somebody who makes things by hand: somebody who makes decorative or practical objects skillfully by hand

skillful person: somebody who does something with great skill and expertise.

Artist:creator of art: somebody who creates art …………..You right denzel and many others like him along with the film maker.Are crafstmen ,they are not however artists what they do is not art .Let's not make a mountain out of a ant hill


I think Tanya Steele needs to be cognizant that black men and women are treated differently in Hollywood due to gender roles. Nobody complained about Flight at all or about Denzel playing an addict in Flight. Haven't people complained for a long time that Denzel always plays the black noble man and he never takes a chance or a risk? Look at Will Smith he's gone to even more safer roles than Denzel. Will Smith's best film role to date was the gay film Six Degrees of Separation.


I usually like your articles but this all seems trumped up. Not sure if I've heard of any real "controversy," and having viewed both "LINCOLN" and "FLIGHT" recently, DW's performance, although good in spots, pales in comparison to DDL's work as the 16th President. I agree that Washington is a great actor but this performance featured several "hammy" moments somewhat reminiscent of "Hurricane," (imo). But that could be more a function of weak direction & could possibly cost him a nomination. LINCOLN, however, is quality film-making and though Lewis will undoubtedly be nominated, I'm not sure he has it sown up either. Someone could emerge in the coming months to surprise us all. I was certain Jeff Bridges would repeat and win for his Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit," losing instead to Colin Firth in a role almost any competent British actor could've pulled off. Oscar is a fickle dude…


I agree with 97% of the commentors on this article, think you are blowing out of proportion the near non-existent criticism of 'Flight'. There has really been no backlash. Anyone can see that tragic and flawed characters get Oscar nods the most regardless of race. 'Flight' is a GREAT movie and Denzel showed his mastery.
Now to my gripe with the senseless bashing you are trying to give 'The Help'. You are full of shit to think you have any validity in saying anything about 'The Help' and you admittedly near watched it!!! To criticize anything, you have to try it and consider it. Furthermore, every movie is not meant to portray the worst of any situation. That is sensationalism. Film is storytelling in it's most vivid form and it is a tool to give lessons. 'The Help' was not meant to be a horrific story or one too harsh for children to see. It was one to show the lack of humanity and to teach. When changing people's minds via art or any form of social protest, it is not always appropriate to riot and sometimes a picket-line or peaceful sit-in is not effective. Do NOT openly slander art you were too judgemental to even watch just because it chose to be a sit-in and not a riot.


So…you criticize "The Help" while admitting that you haven't actually seen it because of the controversy. Then go on to say the Denzel controversy surrounding Flight shouldn't be important because it's about the performance. Isn't that a double standard?


Tanya, you nailed it. First of all I have to say I loved "Lincoln" and I expect DDL to win the Oscar. And I admit I saw the "The Help" at the theaters and felt it was a good film, a very solid film. But I get where you're coming from. Since you did a wonderful job making your argument I will keep my response, for once, short. In my opinion black folks are way too occupied with the notion of films with blacks and black characters being "positive". Not enough emphasis is on "quality". Michael Corleone isn't a positive character. Scarlett O'Hara isn't a positive character. Daniel Plainview isn't a positive character. But they are all fascinating, complex, interesting, QUALITY characters who are far more engaging than middle-of-the-road do-gooders that fill up Hollywood motion pictures. I realize that black people would be less upset if there was more of a greater diversity of black characters overall, but they are taking out their anger on the wrong targets. Flight is far from perfect but it is a good film that has given Denzel his best role in arguably over a decade. And his performance is superb. Like I wrote above I feel DDL has the Oscar locked up but I'm pretty sure Denzel Washington will get properly recognized with another nomination.




Great piece Tanya! I agree 1000 percent with everything you said! Denzel's performance is amazing, on so many levels. And as another poster said addiction is a real problem that many people — both addicts and those in their lives — deal with everyday. And the character that he creates is AMAZING! I actually found it difficult to dislike Whip, despite a lot of what he was doing, which goes against my own morals and values. That's Oscar-worthy, when an actor can pull off that kind of performance. And most cannot. …I had really wanted to see Lincoln because of Daniel Day Lewis' performance, but decided to see Flight first too, and I've recently become conflicted because of an article that I read on the Washington Post by Michael Shank ('Lincoln': Where was Frederick Douglas?); and an editorial by Eric Foner (2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." NYT, Nov. 23, 2012). In short, they raised good questions about historical accuracy with regard to the roles that Douglass, other freed people, slaves and the suffrage movement played in ending slavery.


I feel you are giving voice to a very small minority of Flight critics and thus ultimately inflaming a near non-existant controversy. Across the board, most opinions, black and other, concur that his performance was brilliant and he will of course be nominated for an Oscar. It's not necessary to create a supposed oppositional perspective to support the merits of the article. On another note, I think the writer loses credibility by being so judgmental of the films The Help and Lincoln without seeing them. There is a word for someone who goes out of their way to criticize something they have not seen. It's not critic. it's 'hater'.


Flight was amazing because it featured a black main character in extraordinary circumstances. Let's face it, that role would ordinarily go to Robert Downey Jr., etc. As for the Marion Cotillard argument, she's as French & white as Piaf was. The struggle for representation isn't over. But if you want Rene Zellwegger playing Nina Simone to prove a point, be my guest!

Joe Doughrity

A wonderful piece. Thank you Ms. Steele and S&A!

Justin W

There's a huge difference in Denzel's portrayal in flight compared to his portrayal in Training Day.


Frankly, Denzel's character in "Flight" is a saint compared to the role that won him his Oscar. The pilot here fights a demon that grips everyday people in everyday life. If you know anyone who has dealt with addiction–and most of us do–you understand those moments in the film when Whip backtracks. By contrast, there were no redeeming values in either the central character or the plot line of "Training Day." Yes, Denzel's acting was remarkable, but happened in the context of a film dripping with absolute negativity. That's in sharp contrast to "Flight."


Frankly, Denzel's character in "Flight" is a saint compared to the role that won him his Oscar. The pilot here fights a demon that grips everyday people in everyday life. If you know anyone who has dealt with addiction–and most of us do–you understand those moments in the film when Whip backtracks. By contrast, there were no redeeming values in either the central character or the plot line of "Training Day." Yes, Denzel's acting was remarkable, but happened in the context of a film dripping with absolute negativity. That's in sharp contrast to "Flight."


After reading this I'm convinced that I should watch this film against my early judgement to not do so. That's me speaking for myself, however I can't speak for everyone else.

Even though I understand your sentiments, I really don't think you are grasping the full extent of the backlash. You and I can agree to disagree that Hollywood is the least of everyone's (everyone being the film's detractors) problem. There are a number of factors and I needn't have to turn on the tv or live in someone else's shoes for you to see it.


I agree with Donella. I haven't heard any controversy. I haven't even heard any black women complaining about Denzel's white love-interest. At least not publicly. And that's saying a lot!!!

But, I will say this…can Denzel live? I mean how many Glory's, Hurricane's and Malcolm X's does the man have to do before people stop getting mad because he does a less than "exemplary" role? It's not like every other role he does is an Alonzo or a Whip.

Let Denzel Live!!!


Denzel was brilliant in Flight. I never go to films and look at black characters as the representation on my entire race. Unless of course its a film ABOUT the black experience. I thought the whole argument was that we are not getting good roles? So when we get a good role we have a problem with it? I'm sorry but some of us need to grow up.


Flight has a great opening 30 minutes and Denzel Washington is great for that opening thirty Minutes. He is also amazing at the end of the film, but much of the film features some of his worst acting in recent memory. It's not his fault. The middle of the film is a slog and he has no material to work with. Shouldn't get an Oscar nod for crappy work, but then again it was better than most shit this year.


I loved this movie. Loved it. I don't see Denzel's character as a bad guy in this movie either, so I don't know where "that" is coming from. He's a human being in this move. Flawed but human, and for those of us who know all to well the ins and outs of addiction, all I can say is hell to the yeah! on how Denzel played it out on screen. Yes he deserves a nomination; heck he deserves the Oscar. I'm no movie critic or film student, just someone who goes to the occasional movie and likes being swept away into another world from time to time. That being said, this movie was superlative.

Oh and Denzel's walk is a character all by itself. Every time I see him stride I get off! Hmm. Sexy mofo.


Strange. I haven't heard any controversy about Denzel's performance in Flight. Only praise.


I saw Flight on its opening night and LOVED IT! I do believe Mr. Washington will receive an Oscar nod and he deserves it. His performance was brilliant and I didn't see a negative portrayal of a Black man. I saw a heartbreaking portrait of an addict who had allowed the illness to take over every fabric of his life.

sheldon buckmire

great insight ! well said.

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