The Black Anti-Hero's New Hero
Black antiheros are not new to cinema, but they are new to the Oscars. When Denzel Washington took home the Best Actor award on the heels of Halle Berry, it was as important a moment for film as an art form as it was for American history.
In his acceptance speech, Washington, who became the second black man after Poitier to earn the lead actor honors, acknowledged the man who had made his accomplishment possible: "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I'd rather do, sir."
The connection between Poitier and Washington, in light of the Oscars received by both men, is an important one. Like Poitier in his time -- and more so than any other black actor -- Washington carries the burden of transcending the racial boundaries imposed by mainstream America while remaining true to his cultural roots. That said, what is most interesting about Training Day is that the role Washington played tells us volumes about what hes learned from his predecessor -- both Poitiers setbacks and his triumphs -- and about maintaining his viability as a leading black actor.
As the story goes, when an up-and-coming Denzel Washington met Sidney Poitier, the veteran actor offered the following choice words of advice: Pick your first three roles wisely, for they will define your career. Poitier's career, though successful on many counts, ultimately fell victim to Tinsel Town's tempered liberalism. Hollywood had become particularly preachy and out of touch on the issue of race in the late sixties, right when Poitier was reaching the peak of his career. While he successfully undermined the myth of black evil, Poitier eventually found himself pigeon-holed into agenda roles meant to legitimize Hollywood's anti-racist credentials. Poitier's blockbuster, the 1967 "classic" Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (that would be a Negro aargh!), exemplifies the best and worst of his career. While it was the first time a film with a black lead was number one at the box office, it also signaled the rapidly declining relevance of Hollywood's whitewashed liberal agenda, now far removed from the more radical racial politics taking place on the streets. And especially since the role was so nauseatingly assimilationist, Poitier quickly lost all legitimacy in the eyes of many young black moviegoers, who were themselves at the forefront of a new wave of cross-cultural radicalism. In comparison to the era of slapstick black action flicks that followed it, Dinner appeared dated, offensively apologist, and hopelessly cliché. Though he had overcome many a stereotype by the sheer power of his performances, and paved the way for a whole generation of new actors, Poitier's career would never fully recover.
The marginalization Poitier endured was not lost on his successors, least of all on his present-day torchbearer Denzel Washington. That lesson is readily apparent in his choice of roles, which has always been based on a strong personal agenda rather than Hollywood's political needs. For years, Washington quietly refused to kiss a white woman on screen, much less engage in an intimate relationship with one (Malcolm X was, for a time, the one exception made necessary by requirements of historical accuracy). And he refused the lead role in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, which was instead filled by Wesley Snipes, who publicly celebrates the fact that he does not date black women.
But aside from his choice of on-screen bedfellows, the clearest indication Washington has given of his political agenda is in his refusal to drive Miss Daisy, so to speak. His portrayal of Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom" (1987) garnered Washington his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Two years later, he won the award for his depiction of a spiteful ex-slave in "Glory" in an equally uncompromising role. Then came Washington's 1992 portrayal of Malcolm X, which earned him a Best Actor nomination. No one in their right mind expected the Academy to give him an Oscar for playing a powerful, rightfully angry black man. The same was true of his portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. In his most recent film, "John Q," Washington uses his status to address an issue every American can relate to: the lack of health care for our children. As admirable and Oscar-worthy as these roles may have been, what is more important to note is that these films may never have been made or widely distributed if it were not for the charisma and star power of Washington himself.
No black actor but Washington would ever be considered for many of the leading roles he has taken. The majority of mainstream roles Washington has taken were written for white men, such as the lawyer who defends an AIDS stricken victim against discrimination in "Philadelphia." John Grisham vehemently opposed Washington being cast as the lawyer who exposes the conspiracy behind a Supreme Court Justice's murder in movie version of his book "The Pelican Brief." In other instances, the race of the lead was not designated (tip a hat again to Poitier's legacy), but it might as well have been. Washington has not only played roles meant for white men, but he has helped make them black. He has positioned race as fundamental rather than incidental. Take for example the scene in "The Pelican Brief" where a black Denzel cannot get a cab when running after the (white) bad guys. Strike you as ironic? Think that part was written for a white guy? The scene is both educational to some in the audience and tremendously ironic to those in the know.
Unlike Poitier, Washington has been more able to shift or subvert existing stereotypes rather than fall victim to them. In his Oscar-winning role, Washington took on the stereotypical black anti-hero and made him a real human being, rather than the two-dimensional monster first created by D.W. Griffith in "The Birth of A Nation," whose story-line included various negative black characters, including an evil mulatto woman. Meant to be a post-Reconstruction history lesson, Griffith's film tells a familiar tale -- that of blacks who commit the cardinal sins of desiring whites and equal rights (the two going in tandem), and who in the end finally get their due (death).
In "Training Day," Washington takes on the Herculean task of recasting the black anti-hero. He plays Alonzo Harris, an ambitious yet jaded narcotics officer compromised by his own pragmatism. A veteran of the Machiavellian war on drugs waged in his own community, Harris has become an accomplished cynic ready to get out of narcotics and pass the torch to Hoyt, in whom he sees promise. Hoyt, the rookie on his first day, is anxious to impress yet naïve to the brutal realities of the job. Harris knows his partner is unaware of how dog-eat-dog his job is, and is anxious to teach Hoyt quickly that corruption is literally the name of the game. So in what he hopes will be his last hurrah, Harris kills a major drug dealer with the help of the narcotics unit he heads. What shocks Hoyt is that the hit seems like standard fare. What is worse, to make the assassination look clean, Harris and the other officers want Hoyt to say he accidentally shot the drug lord, making it look like a rookie mistake in a failed arrest.
When viewed through the mainstream (read: white) lens, Washington's portrayal of "bad cop" Harris may be seen as reinforcing white stereotypes of black masculinity, black sexuality, and the very essence of blackness itself. Yet Washington's reprisal of the black anti-hero is a masterful humanization of this traditionally stereotyped norm. Provocative because of Washington's fast and loose use of the "n" word (even, equitably, in reference to his white partner, Jake Hoyt, played by Ethan Hawke), "Training Day" is not Washington's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." It is rather his antithetical response to the role which came to define his predecessor Poitier's career. Whereas Poitier felt forced to do assimilationist blather at the height of his success, Denzel has leveraged his legitimacy both in the mainstream and among his black constituents in a way that is both radical and daring.
On the face of it, you have a tried and true Hollywood cliché: Washington decked in the exaggerated trappings of the black stereotype (the gold, the slang, the walk and talk), corrupting the lily-white, saintly blue-collar Hawke, who lives to see another day. Washington's achievement lies in not allowing the stereotype to define the character. While the principal 'good' guy is white and the principal 'bad' guy is black, those labels are not hierarchical. Harris is the tutor, Hoyt the student. Harris is the one with the street smarts gained from his hood roots, while Hoyt is the suburban white boy whose idealism needs a reality check. The murdered drug dealer is white and the kingpin of a system that clearly exploits the ghetto. Harris sees the killing as street justice, while Hoyt is shocked by it. But Harris wants Hoyt to come to terms with the reality of narcotics work, which is sometimes as down and dirty as the people you're dealing with. The film's message -- that there is a point past which right and wrong become indistinguishable -- may be misinterpreted by some as a lesson in how bad some black folks are. But "Training Day" is in essence a morality play, not a lesson in myths about race. In the end, Harris is not evil because he is black; he is evil because he has been corrupted by a system in which success and exploitation go hand in hand.
Thanks to Washington, we may have moved one step closer to burying the tired stereotype of the black anti-hero. We may also have moved one step closer to resurrecting him, this time as a real human being. For that, he deserves more than an Oscar.
A version of this story originally appeared in ColorLines.com