Sunday, November 25, 2007

Denzel Washington: From Watching Jimmy Cagney To Playing Frank Lucas As A Gentleman Gangster In A Chinchilla Coat


Is Denzel Washington narked, or is he sparring? He is certainly dressed for action: in white sneakers, track-suit bottoms, and black t-shirt over a slight paunch, he looks like a pugilist between caught between rounds. But his posture – slumped deep in a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel – could barely be more passive.
I have suggested, innocently enough, that Washington had a wild spell in his mid-teens. He has sometimes alluded to this by telling the story of his three teenage friends. One of them died of Aids (from injecting drugs), one was murdered, and the other is in jail. Washington got into a few fights at this time, but was spared the fate of his friends by his mother, who scrimped to send him to a private school, where he excelled and discovered acting.
But he doesn’t tell that story today. When I mention this wayward period, he pushes himself up from the spongy depths of the sofa and offers an incredulous stare.
“Is that something you read?” he says, laughing dismissively.
Well, I say, did you not?
“I was a teenager growing up in New York,” he replies. “Yeah.”
The hostility comes wrapped in laughter, but it feels real enough. Let’s correct the story if it’s wrong, I suggest.
“Well, you’re throwing something out there. I was a teenager for five or six years, what are you asking?”
The truth is: Denzel Washington is both thoughtful and obtuse. He is, we may speculate, bored of carrying out his promotional duties for his leading role in Ridley Scott’s parable of 1970s New York, American Gangster. This is the second-last interview of his second-last day on the promotional charabanc, after which he can get back to editing his next film, which tells the story of Melvin B Tolson, who led the black team at Wiley College, Texas, to success at the 1935 national debating championships.
Washington is the director and the star of The Great Debaters, and it’s easy to see where it fits on his CV. As an actor he rose from a regular role on the hospital drama St Elsewhere to the first rank of Hollywood stars, and – not unlike ER-graduate George Clooney – used his celebrity to make films that were socially-responsible. Washington is most often thought of as a good guy; playing anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, or Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biopic. In 1989 he won an Academy Award (Supporting Actor) for his performance as an ex-slave in one of the US Army’s black regiments during the Civil War in Glory. But his Best Actor Oscar – for Training Day, in which he played a corrupt cop - shows that he sometimes walks on the dark side. It is notable, too, that he won his biggest prize for it.
American Gangster is more controversial entirely. Washington plays Frank Lucas, the heroin dealer who ran organised crime in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s, and built his fortune by cutting out the middle man, importing drugs directly from South East Asia in the coffins of dead American soldiers.
In the film, Washington spars with Russell Crowe (playing Richie Roberts, the straight-arrow detective who, in an extraordinary twist, later became Lucas’s attorney). Ostensibly the hero, Crowe is scruffy and inarticulate. Washington, as Lucas, is a kind of superfly cowboy, pimped-up and easily charismatic. He is the bad guy but, this being Hollywood, his misdeeds are easy to forgive, and strangely thrilling. I intend to mention this, but before I do, I throw Washington a soft question: what was appealing about this character?
There is a long silence before he answers. “That suggests that’s why I did the movie, because of the character, which is not true. I actually turned the film down, first time I read it.”
He took a second look when Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua was attached to the project, and came back to it a couple of years later when Ridley Scott was confirmed as director. It was, he says, the combination of Scott and Russell Crowe that snagged his interest. “It wasn’t so much: ‘Oh I’m so in love with the character I gotta do it.’”
But, I say, there are moral complexities about the character of Frank Lucas.
“Unlike life!” Washington says quickly, again with the dismissive laugh. “That’s what’s interesting. People say: do you feel bad, glamorising a drug dealer? Well, once you make a film you’re glamorising everybody. It’s a movie. There’s a score, there’s music playing as you walk down the street. But if it’s sending a message, which I’m not sure it is, at the end of the movie he’s a small broken man, alone. He comes out of jail with nothing and nobody’s around to meet him.”
Washington can talk in these circles forever. His speech is an odd mix of ebullience and diplomacy. He speaks forcefully, but often in the service of saying nothing very much. But then, as a leading black actor, he seems to be under greater scrutiny than a white actor in the equivalent position. No one challenged Robert De Niro for making Al Capone attractive in The Untouchables, but Washington’s turn as Lucas has provoked forceful condemnation from both sides of the argument. In the New York Daily News, the columnist Stanley Crouch called American Gangster “a highly crafted piece of poisonous eye candy”. The real Frank Lucas, Crouch wrote, was illiterate and couldn’t count; he plotted to kill his own brother and cried in court.
“I don’t comment on things I haven’t read,” Washington says when I quote the text. “But I know Stanley.”
Well, I suggest, what if I said these things to you?
“Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. And go, if that’s what you feel. I got no problem with that.”
On the other hand, the critic David Thomson has condemned Washington for playing in “garbage” such as American Gangster, and concluded a peculiar attack in The Guardian with the suggestion that: “I’ll believe in progress the day Denzel Washington plays a black man who has a full-blooded physical love affair with a white woman. And it’s promoted as a big picture.”
So, while Crouch condemns Washington for glorifying a bad black man, Thomson condemns him for not kissing white women. Russell Crowe, you can be sure, doesn’t attract brickbats like that.
In which case, let’s back up a little. Washington is, without qualification, one of the leading actors of his time. His easy good looks undoubtedly helped – he looks a decade younger than his 52 years – but he has earned his spurs. His father was a Pentecostal minister, who worked for the Water Department and a New York department store. His mother owned a beauty parlour and was raised in Harlem. Washington has talked about how his mother used to tell him how heroin brought Harlem to its knees, and how “people who once stood proud ended up lying on their backs”.
Today, he is less-expansive. “First of all, understand, Harlem is a great community. There’s millions of people that live in Harlem. And this part of the story is not the Harlem story. A whole lot of things were going on in Harlem other than Frank Lucas and the heroin business.”
Washington says he has “great memories” of growing up. “I love New York. I’m a New Yorker, first, last and always. The same streets that we were filming on for this film, we were on the same block filming Malcolm X. So I know those streets, and a lot of the people in ’em. A lot of fond memories.”
Much has been made of the divorce of Washington’s parents, which occurred when he was 14. Was that not a difficult time?
“You’re reading too much. Don’t base your interview on what you read on the internet, man. It’s not that deep.”
It wasn’t a significant breach in his life?
“I’m not here to talk about that. Come on. Do you wanna talk about the movie? I’m here to talk about the movie. Not what I did at 14 years old. It’s nobody’s business, quite frankly. And I don’t say that because it’s that deep. It’s not that big a deal. It was 40 years ago.”
In which case, we had better get back to American Gangster. It is a typical Ridley Scott film, big and bold, stronger on mood than nuance, but satisfyingly epic. Washington is great, although the aura of goodness he brings to the role probably does make Frank seem a finer fellow than a murderous drug dealer has any right to expect.
In the movie, Frank’s fortunes turn on a moment of over-confidence, when his beauty queen wife persuades him to wear a chinchilla coat to the Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden. I tell Washington that this seems to be the moment when everything starts to go wrong.
“That’s where you thought he goes wrong? Not when he shot the man in the head?!”
The coat was a tactical error.
“Frank told me that was a big mistake, wearing that coat. It’s a bit of a twist on the story. What he said actually happened was, number one, his wife didn’t give him the coat. There were a lot of big shot gangsters coming to town for the big Ali-Frazier fight and the New York gangsters weren’t going to be outdone. He wasn’t always that flash guy, but for that event, he was going to play the role. So Frank Matthews, who was another big drug dealer, was there at the fight. Frank said: Sinatra was over here, Miles Davis, all these big shots. And Matthews was like: well I’m betting $100,000 on Frazier. Lucas liked Ali – he said I’ve got $200 000 on Ali. They’re yelling. Frank said: ‘Denzel we’re yelling so everybody could hear us.’ Well, little did he know, the Feds were watching Frank Matthews.
“And so, the Feds were like, well who is this guy that can bet half a million dollars, wearing this chinchilla coat? And they thought, he’s probably some small drug-drealer pimp, but wait a minute, this guy’s got better seats than your Mob guys. Who the heck is this guy?
“And Frank’s nature; he said: I had to be the biggest guy in the room. He said to me, if there was a party and I knew you were going, I wouldn’t go. He said his own ego was the beginning.”
Washington grew to know Lucas during filming, and considers him to be “a very interesting, complex man” who “did a lot of damage and paid the price for it”. Yet Lucas was gifted a house by Washington and producer Brian Grazer. Why?
“He asked for a Rolls-Royce. I promised him four years ago. He talked me into it. And I’m a man of my word. So when we came back to shoot the movie, he wouldn’t let me forget.
“And his oldest son said: listen, my father’s dirt poor. He doesn’t need a Roller, he can’t drive it anyway. He needs a roof over his head. So I said: all right, let me see what I can do.”
This rewarding of a criminal seems a more objectionable aspect of American Gangster than convoluted arguments about Washington’s responsibilities as a role model, but he remains unapologetic.
“He’s a criminal who went to jail. So, in theory when you go to jail, you served your time. This is 40 years later. I didn’t give it to him in 1974. I gave it to him in 2006. Why? Can you not help somebody out?”
The other aspect of Stanley Crouch’s argument is a comparison between American Gangster and Brian De Palm’s Scarface. Scarface’s amoral Tony Montana has, Crouch feels, been a pernicious influence on the rap generation, and Washington’s Frank Lucas crackles with the same malign energy.
“I must say that when I was a kid, I loved Cagney movies, Bogart movies,” Washington says. “There’s always been a fascination with gangster movies. There wasn’t an outlet like the hip-hop generation has now.”
On the link between violence and films, Washington says this: “‘Raise your kids,’ is my answer to that. That’s what I’m doing. Raise your own kids.”
Washington has four children, aged between 16 and 23, by his wife, actress Pauletta Pearson, who he met on the set of the 1977 TV movie, Wilma.
“I watched Bogart films, but I watched them at home. Dad was working, mom was upstairs. So the bottom line is, raise your kids. The fundamental problem we have right now is that parents aren’t raising their kids. Fathers aren’t there. That’s more of a crime than which movie you watch. The reason a movie like a Scarface can take hold on a young man or woman’s life is probably because they don’t have any other stronger influence than that. The first thing you hear when you talk to young kids that have joined gangs is that they didn’t have that strong influence at home. They have more of a sense of family with a gang.”
We talk in circles about Lucas, and Washington says that he was an awful man, but that now he is “literally broken in body”, and has had everything taken away from him. At the same time, Washington notes that Lucas is a churchgoer. “Some might argue he’s been overly glamorised, but my record speaks for itself.”
It does. And the fact that so many sparks are flying from American Gangster is a sign of Washington’s significance as an actor. He makes popular cinema of satisfying complexity. Next up is a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three directed by Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, with – Washington hopes – John Travolta co-starring.
As Washington’s mood brightens, I tell him that while I was waiting to see him, I listened to the female radio interviewers comparing notes on their time with him. One complimented him on his soft hands, the other replied that he had very white teeth.
He is greatly amused.
“I don’t do any hard work and I brush my teeth every day! People have told me that all along: soft hands and feet. I guess it’s because I don’t do any real hard work. But even when I lift weights I don’t seem to get heavily calloused.”
I tell him that my conversation with him reminded me of the time I interviewed the author Walter Mosley on the day of the OJ Simpson verdict. When I asked Mosley about OJ, the author spent ten minutes explaining why the question was racist. Washington, who starred in the adaptation of Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress, nods slowly.
“It is a sensitive thing, and you know, you don’t want to be corralled by what part you can play, or can’t play. Like I said, my record speaks for itself.”
And with that, the great debater sinks back into the sofa to await the man from the Irish Times. “I’m gonna stay right here in this position,” he purrs. “I’m not moving.”