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.