Let black actors wear the black hat

October 14, 2001|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

YOU PROBABLY shouldn't read this column.

At least, not if you haven't yet seen the new Denzel Washington movie, Training Day. I'll be giving away a major plot point, so if you want to preserve the element of surprise, turn back now.

You see, one spends a good part of the movie trying to figure out whether Mr. Washington's character, an LAPD narcotics detective named Alonzo Harris, is a committed cop or a cop who needs to be committed.

Is he, in other words, a good cop whose unorthodox and even illegal methods are necessary to the dirty task at hand, or is he just a swaggering bully whose moral compass slipped down the sewer a long time ago?

The answer - last chance to turn back, folks - is the latter. Alonzo is downright evil. He's also, as near as I can tell, Mr. Washington's first truly malevolent role, and the actor tears into it with the unadulterated joy of a starving man into prime rib. He makes Alonzo an utterly convincing villain.

For some people, that's a problem.

I saw Training Day at a preview screening at a convention for black journalists in August.

Afterward, there was a question-and-answer session with director Antoine Fuqua. The gist of it: How could Mr. Fuqua, who is black, make a movie that offered such a "negative" portrayal of a black man? One woman pronounced herself disturbed at seeing Mr. Washington cast as a villain.

I felt the director's pain. Hey, if Antoine Fuqua or anybody else made a movie that cast aspersions on black men, I'd be the first to raise a ruckus. But Training Day doesn't indict black men, plural. It indicts a black man, singular. It's a measure of black folks' hypersensitivity to insult that some of us don't see the difference.

That hypersensitivity, of course, has firm roots in reality. Hollywood has historically depicted blacks in the crudest, most insulting terms. We were either de-sexed or oversexed, book dumb or street smart, lazy or, well lazy. We were congenitally criminal, born ballplayers and unable to enter a room without dancing. And it was tacitly understood that if you'd met one, you'd met them all.

It's a depiction that hasn't changed nearly enough.

Which makes it a tricky thing to be conscientious, black and in the public eye.

You must forever balance your aspirations and tastes, your very individuality, against that historical backdrop, against the understanding that your behavior - if it appears to corroborate stereotypes - will invariably be generalized to the group.

You have to understand that you represent something larger than yourself.

It can be an ennobling burden, but it's a burden nevertheless. Consider Sidney Poitier, the first - and for years, the only - major African-American film star to enjoy wide popularity with white audiences. Because of that distinction, he became, in effect, less an actor than an ambassador.

And though Mr. Poitier did it well and though it was necessary, it's still sobering to think of what that must have cost him in terms of personal prerogative - if only his right as an actor to choose roles solely on the basis of whether they interested him. It's worth noting that over 52 years in cinema, Mr. Poitier has virtually never played the bad guy.

Robert DeNiro gets to play the bad guy. Jack Nicholson, too. But Sidney Poitier couldn't.

Worse, if an auditorium full of black folk is to be believed, Denzel Washington can't, either.

That's the troubling part, the idea that arguably the biggest African-American film star of the millennium would be constrained by the same concerns that bedeviled his counterpart 35 years ago. I mean, Mr. Washington has played cops, coaches and military men. He's been Malcolm X and Hurricane Carter, and he's even been an angel. Yet he can't be a bad guy?

I'm not naive. I understand that, to some degree, a black actor still owes certain things to black people. But, that said, the `60s are over. So maybe it's time we talked a little about the things all black people owe one another - and the things they don't.

If Sidney Poitier's life means anything, it means Denzel Washington ought to be allowed to play a scoundrel. It means he has that right, he has that freedom.

Wasn't that the idea all along?

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He may be reached via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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