Denzel Over Easy
In close to 40 years as a professional stage/screen actor, Denzel Washington, turning 62 today, has proven equally effective in both contemporary and period roles. His latest effort in a period vein, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences, is set in 1957 offers Washington (who also directed the movie) the rich part of Pittsburgh trash collector (and one-time promising Negro Leagues baseball player) Troy Maxson, whom The New York Times’ A.O. Scott described in his review as “one of the indelible characters in American dramatic literature, equal to — and in some ways a pointed response to – Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Fences is part of a cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience that amounts to a critique of the American dream from the standpoint of people intent on defying their exclusion from it. If Willy Loman’s tragedy proceeds from disillusionment, Troy’s redemption is possible because he never had any illusions to begin with. His rigid ideas about work, responsibility and manhood constitute not a demand for attention, but an assertion of dignity. His cruelty, selfishness and shortsightedness are somehow inseparable from his loyalty, his steadfastness and his existential courage.” Washington is a Best Actor Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee for his performance as Troy, who joins the proud company of Washington’s other great period characters, the defiant Sgt. Trip (his Oscar®-winning 1989 Glory part), Malcolm X (1992), Coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans (2000) and his recent The Magnificent Seven (2016) assignment as Wichita bounty hunter Sam Chisholm. One more specially memorable project also came from the pen of another great African-American writer, Walter Mosely, whose first-published book, 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress, kicked off his 14-novel (to date) series about the sleuthing exploits of black private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and was transformed in 1995 by adaptor/director Carl Franklin into a stylish and suspenseful movie. As The New York Times’ film critic Janet Maslin observed 21 years ago about this Los Angeles noir set in 1948, “When Denzel Washington, who plays Easy, visits the office of a wealthy businessman, he looks as if he's stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine. Anyone care to complain about that? The role of Easy looks as tailor-made for Mr. Washington as his suit, and it shows off the full effect of this actor's movie-star dazzle. In a career dotted with generic roles and noble ones, he's never had a part that fit him better.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times went even further: “Hard-boiled fiction is a been-around genre about done-that individuals, so the pleasant air of newness and excitement that Devil in a Blue Dress gives off isn't due to its familiar find-the-girl plot. Rather it's the film's glowing visual qualities, a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all that create the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.” Both Fences’ Troy and Devil’s Easy share qualities of charismatic strength and self-righteous purpose in the face of life’s tough breaks; while Troy expresses himself in sometimes humorous, sometimes painful bursts of boisterous and angry eloquence, Easy plays things closer to the vest, a man of action and strategy. Washington’s versatility somehow links them together while clearly defining their differences. Also starring Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin and Terry Kinney, beautifully shot by Tak Fujimoto and sinuously scored by Elmer Bernstein, Devil in a Blue Dress on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray is a top showcase for a birthday honoree whose talent and appeal readily scale any fences unwisely erected in his way.