Sunday, November 11, 2012


Writes Andrew O'Hehir in Salon: At this point it’s a total cliché to describe Denzel Washington as one of our greatest screen actors. I’m not disputing the point, but the problem with Washington is in fact the atmosphere of Great-Actorliness around him, which sometimes ennobles his movies but can just as often diminish them. With his impressive physical presence, ladykilling charm and stern, sarcastic demeanor, Washington strikes me as a movie star from a different era, perhaps the age of Clark Gable and Laurence Olivier. That overlooks the obvious fact that a man of Washington’s background and color could never have been a major star in an earlier day, but that too – that sense of belonging both to the present and the past – is part of his appeal.

Washington often seems to be playing Shakespeare even when he isn’t, and in a great many of his movies one wishes he were. He’d clearly be a terrific Othello – and I know how that sounds, picking the only major African role in English drama – but he’d be outrageously good as Macbeth or Henry the Fifth as well, and he’s drawing close to the age when he could play Lear. Since I’m getting myself in hot water, I’ll go further: Washington might fit best projected some centuries into the future, into a universe of “post-racial” entertainment that none of us will ever see. As excited as I am to see Daniel Day-Lewis play Abraham Lincoln, for example, I think Washington would be even better. And not playing Lincoln as “black,” in some racially reversed alternate universe or whatever. Just playing Lincoln.

There are intimations of those distant possibilities throughout Washington’s career; in Robert Zemeckis’ alternately thrilling, tedious and moralistic “Flight,” as in many of his recent films, Washington plays a black man whose race is mentioned only indirectly and plays no major role in the plot. Capt. Whip Whitaker, Washington’s character, both is and is not based on Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009. That is, Whip faces a test at least as dire as Sully’s and passes it with flying colors, regaining control of an Orlando-Atlanta commuter flight that has gone into an uncontrolled dive and making an emergency landing in a pasture.
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