Call it "Denzel's Law," the carte blanche that two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington has recently taken to two-time African American moviegoers. While his career has -- intentionally or not -- been a measure of Hollywood's acceptance of black actors, Washington has lately chosen a backsliding path. His recent films forge a screen persona of less than heroic, non-idealized black males. In Training Day, Fallen, John Q and the new Man on Fire, Washington portrays men who go out of control, break the law, flirt with evil or embody evil itself. This regularly-scheduled sensationalism fits the film industry's box office schemes (violence always sells) but it doesn't truly represent the real life social standing of constantly demonized African American men.
In Man on Fire, Denzel plays Creasy, a former CIA assassin with 16 years military experience and anti-terrorist training. Now he has turned to drinking and gloom, with one hand on a gun and the other on a bottle of Jim Beam. He's first seen down-and-out, with a scraggly beard and out of work until his old mercenary buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) gets him a job as a bodyguard. Dark, brooding Creasy has to protect Pita (Dakota Fanning), the blonde-precocious daughter of a Mexican businessman, from being kidnapped.
On the film's surface -- the most trite and sentimental level -- this is the story of how a little white angel brings a lost black man back to his senses. At its core, Man on Fire is a killing spree; one of director Tony Scott's over-elaborate, excessively flashy showcases for mayhem. It allows Denzel to further distance himself from the New Poitier label first attached to him in the '80s by appealing to a new taste in black screen machismo. Creasy is a peculiarly post-hip hop icon -- a matinee idol thug.
According to "Denzel's Law" -- the shrewd, proven-effective way this actor has conducted his career -- black audiences no longer require that a black performer be decent or proper. Aggression is the charm; it takes advantage of the displaced anger and frustration that black Americans feel outside the Cineplex by offering a fantasy revenge figure. Creasy is as relentless and remorseless as Uma Thurman's Bride character in Kill Bill. When Creasy goes after the bad guys, who sure enough kidnap little Pita, ("I'll kill anybody involved, anybody who profited from it, anybody who opens their eyes to me") he becomes the unstoppable El Hombre del Fuego.
This offensive fantasy is worth rejecting. It completely ignores the actual difficulties and complex circumstances that black people face in the real world. It's a pointlessly violent distraction that doesn't reflect what Denzel himself actually knows about getting over or getting ahead. Rather, Man on Fire panders to the very commercial notion that bad-ass black behavior is somehow emancipating. It actually comes off as an inverted form of self-hatred, especially since Man on Fire directs Creasy's vengeance entirely on a nation of color. The film's Mexico City location is shown as a hellhole of corruption. The gang of kidnappers Creasy hunts down is a mafia-like organization called La Hermandad. But as Chuck D rapped, "Every brother ain't a brother," and Creasy retaliates against political and corporate terrorists who are clearly desperate and socially deprived. Despite demanding millions of dollars in ransom, La Hermandad inhabits slums, raising hordes of kids in hovels. They look like the very kind of folk we see in urban American ghettos but in Tony Scott's universe of TV-commercial slickness and luxury, their poverty is subconsciously translated as a sign of guilt. The film implies that the poor are inherently criminal and deserve to die.
It's a cruel, classist, racist vengeance that Creasy performs. Outside of a Samuel L. Jackson movie, you won't find an uglier indication of Hollywood genre turned against the very people it's intended to attract. In this topsy-turvy logic of macho-fantasy, Creasy proves his manhood by chopping-off fingers, shooting people in the gut or head at close range, firing bazookas at a motorcade and worse. In the film's gaudiest moment, Creasy sodomizes La Hermandad's chief Fuentes by inserting a C-4 plastic bomb (with a timer) in the man's rectum. Perhaps Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't realize the resemblance to the Abner Louima rape -- or maybe they did since the scene plays out with Denzel taunting Fuentes about having five minutes left and a clock-timer appears on the corner of the screen as a perverse, sadistic joke.
According to "Denzel's Law" people of color are expendable -- himself included. The whole point of Man on Fire is that Creasy sacrifices himself for the white girl. Denzel famously refuses to do love scenes with white actresses, but he can play Bojangles to a white girl-child without fear of angering his base black female audience. Yet, that base is still insulted by the movie's violent details. Scott edits numerous violent sequences with little Pita's face inserted as an object of fear, panic, love and value: She's what Denzel/Creasy is fighting for, she's the ideal he gives up his life to protect. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of the Nation was founded on a similar principle of killing black men to protect white females.
That's the ideology this epic Hollywood entertainment perpetuates and Denzel struts through it (sometimes in a Luther Campbell kerchief, sometimes in a black businessman's suit) as an ideological puppet. He even trains the little girl to not be afraid of gunshots: "You welcome the sound. It's the sound that sets you free," Denzel says. (Something every little girl or boy who lives in drive-by zones can respond to.) Denzel's Law says: "Because you trust me, I can put anything over on you."
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.