Roman Israel —-the character and the film, illustrate a harsh reality of heartbreak, humility, and the attempt at humanity by one who has been dehumanized.
Like many of the great black ancestors, film protagonist Roman Israel (Denzel Washington) spent decades fighting for change—reaching for the impossible to the mental exhaustion imbued by his physical efforts. After his purpose partner dies following complications from a sudden heart attack, Israel finds himself mirroring the societal crippling of the clients he spent his life defending. After some effort to find work, Israel finds himself taking an offer from his late partner’s protege George (Colin Farrell), transforming his life from the modesty of pro bono to the prestige of a law firm in a high rise building. Israel is the oddball at the office full of coworkers obsessed with money and material- not materializing justice for their clients. A modest man of purpose, Israel seemingly snaps after a young client, of whom he tried to help, is murdered. This in the addition to his partner’s illness and ultimate death, his loss of income and purpose, offsets Israel into a dangerous path to which he will not be granted the ability to recover.
In short, Israel illustrates how costly it is to have a lapse in judgment as a black person, and the detriment of black male emasculation. During his life of prose, fiction, and playwriting, the late James Baldwin spoke and wrote extensively about the plight of black men to materialize and actualize masculinity in the conventional sense. Prior to his lapse in judgement, Israel sought masculinity through fighting for the underdog as a societal underdog. His talent and dedication is palpable and inspirational—present both inside and outside of the courtroom. The film shows Israel calling to report construction taking place during unlawful hours multiple times to no response. He does not outwardly display frustration, but viewers are granted a sense of the the many ways in which Israel’s spirit was challenged, a challenge that unveiled the justice sought as that which would never come at request. Israel’s dilemma illustrates what we have seen both inside and outside the Diaspora, the continual request for justice by blacks. Abolition regimes, Brown versus Board of Education, affirmative action, or land reparations as seen in Brazil, illustrate the gift of re-manefested oppression as awarded to those who request rather than resist, a request only acknowledge when the interests of the oppressed mirror that of the oppressor. Derrick Bell introduces the term interest convergence, in essay “Brown v Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma” written in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, asserting what many perceive as small victories as only overtly benefitting blacks when reflecting the interests of whites.
So when Israel realizes that he’s been requesting justice from “the wrong court” he decides to “take.” But his “taking” is not what is seen in cases of Nat Turner, or even Micah Johnson or Gavin Long. No, his taking is an exact replica of white behavior, in which Israel gains capital from inducing someone’s loss. Nat Turner took what money couldn’t and wouldn’t buy— what would never be readily given. Israel, emasculated by the consequences that followed his nearly four decade plight towards what he perceived as justice, takes a chance at the capitalistic existence nurtured by western culture. Israel used the confidential information to lessen the sentence of a teenaged boy’s pending trial, ultimately causing his murder, to incarcerate another young black man—an action that awarded him one-hundred thousand dollars.
The money allows Israel the means to acquire the western exteriority uniform to his new cooperate job, but in the short time it took for him to report this young man, viewers see Israel’s soul leave his body.
History has shown the conscious gaze this behavior before—the black body at an illusive crossroads where they are indirectly presented with the decision of cowardice or courage, enslavement or freedom, silence or sound, leader or follower, life, and death. We saw this James Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues,” where Sonny chooses music and his brother chooses education as a mode of escaping the inescapable. Despite their varied paths, they meet in the middle bruised by the same burdens and cruelty, pushed to the same edge viewers watch Israel dangle from. Whether compartmentalized by the phrase “dangling from the edge” or “snapping” the climax of black masculinity is a recurring theme of the black male narrative that either produces what functions as a hyper-masculinity or an emasculation.
Every black body that has ever occupied an extreme position of courage or cowardice in the systemic abjection of black people, has experienced this moment. This moment is crucial, as it signals a moment where an individual must decide his or her collective purpose. Nat Turner experienced this moment, and sought to overthrow his earthly master. Malcolm X had this moment and became a guiding force to unlock an esteem many blacks did not know was missing. Denzel Washington, the actor who portrays Israel, also has this moment. Extended a platform in his visibility, Washington emerges as a coward in using this platform to fester the wound of inferiority ingrained into the black psyche by way of white supremacy. Israel too had this moment. But his adversity did not mold a fearlessness, but a stifling fear manifested in Israel’s espousal of materialism. Specifically, Israel uses privileged information to collect one hundred grand after turning in the black man responsible for the crime in which his deceased client was charged. Rather than attack the forces that incite the oppressed’s desire for franchisment, Israel joins forces with those whom he spent his entire life challenging. In short, Israel seeks to be on the other side of systemic adversity, a decision that would prove fatal.
A Stubborn Spirit
Ironically, prior to his cowardly conversion, a bulldog statue accompanies Israel nearly everywhere. A recurring image throughout the film, the bull dog symbolically depicts a stubborn nature or strong connection to one’s convictions. The bull dog represents Israel, a stubborn man anchored in his commitment to justice. In the moments before his death, Israel gifts the bulldog statue he carries from his old firm to his new high rise office, to Maya, a beautiful woman drawn to Israel in their shared conviction to justice. For Maya, Israel is what she aspires to be, but by the end of the film, Maya acquires the courage and purpose Israel relinquishes.
What’s in a Name?
The name Israel, is unique and seemly discordant with Denzel Washington the actor and the man. Particularly, the name “Roman Israel” represents colorblind casting, or color being implementing into the film as an attempt to seem more relevant than it actually was during conception. Casting a black man as the film’s protagonist both exposes the racist perception of the producers writers and directors, and aids the white supremacist agenda of implementing white supremacy any and everywhere possible. Namely, the film is a different take of the controlling image where the black male emasculation is evident in his donning of female clothing, appropriating femininity not as an act of resistance or nuanced approach to personhood, but as an effort to dissolve masculinity as it relates to the black male body. Although not assuming an overt femininity, Roman too distances himself from a black masculinity when his “aha” moment breeds an “oh no” reaction. In what should have been a moment of strength, Israel emerges as weak— a depiction that is not accidental in a white supremacist culture. Ironically, named for the land given to a people subject to the inhumane cruelty of a Holocaust, the allusion evoked in Israel’s name symbolizes the danger in waiting for what is given. Israel of course came to the Jewish community as the bow on a gift—a token or acknowledgment of wrongdoing gifted to those no longer in a state of abjection— a tokenizing of a powerlessness transformed into privilege. Israel a seeks an Israel- like token, but as a black man, his desires simply do not manifest.
Instead, Israel surfaces to depict the black male body as damned if he does, and damned if he does not. Israel was damned to a dead-end road as a criminal justice attorney fighting the real criminals to free the fictive criminals from a caricatured existence. In the film’s final moments, the film depicts the black man as paying with his life for doing what whites have done for centuries. Israel, like so many black men before and after him, loses his life on the hard concrete ground, the blood sinking into the same ground composed of the marrow of his ancestors. His spilled blood and premature ending, also like so many black men before him, becomes a stage for the white savior.
The White Savior
Despite initially shutting the door on Israel’s fight for the underdog, once these interests of the oppressed converge with his interests as a white man, George (Colin Farrell) expresses interest in Israel’s life work. By then it is too late. Israel had hung up his cape, a cape that proved a carpet to George’s assuming of Israel’s work after his death. Up until the shift that would cost him his life, Israel was building a case to expose the justice system as unjust. To an extent, every black body builds a case throughout his or her lifetime—some cases acknowledged far more than others. Far too often, these cases become the legacy of whites, who tie the ribbon on an already created black contribution. For example, prior to his death, Ralph Ellison wrote over one-thousand pages in an attempt to rewrite a novel destroyed in a house fire. After his death, a white man assembled these pages into the novel Juneteenth. This is similar to Georges Cuvier placing Saartje Baartman in jar, using the black body, or extensions of this body, as a means to exteriorize the interiority of the black collective–or, to put it simply, a means for whites to assume a legacy through black life. .
This is of course anything but unusual.
Furthermore, the film functions as a means to emasculate the black male body in showcasing both courage and cowardice as leading to fatality. It is worth mentioning that the featured image of the film’s poster, mirrors the perspective of Israel’s murderer and George, the film’s white savior. This angle prompts me to think of Malcolm X’s vow in his autobiography not to have his back to the door, after being rudely awakened to its positional vulverability. Here, Israel seemingly places his back to the world and is ejected from it, by someone, who in the faceless representation, shares the same hue as Israel– a depiction that also alludes to the orchestrated assassination of the late and great Malcolm X.
Rather than providing food for thought, the film not so subtly implies the impossibility of black male navigation in a white supremacist society as reason for their erasure. In the film’s final moments, Roman lay shot on a Los Angeles street. There is no face connected to his murder, or discussion of the fatal shot that delivered his body to the state of his soul. Like Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, amongst countless others, Israel is dead but apparently no one did it. This depiction, in short, screams “I wish you were never born” from the pits of white supremacy in depicting the fatality and ultimate idea abduction that awaits any black body foolish enough to think they can change the world.