I don’t need to tell you what a huge Denzel Washington fan I am. We’ve already been over that one. And that means I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen his latest film, Flight, where Washington plays a heroic pilot with some awful — that’s putting it nicely — behavior. (My excuse for not checking it out yet: The subway trains were down in my neighborhood for a week due to Hurricane Sandy, and last night New York City was hit with a Nor’easter.)
Last weekend, Flight grossed $25 million at the box office, coming in second place. The New York Times lauded its star’s performance — “you can’t take your eyes off Mr. Washington,” the review read. Rolling Stone took the praise a step further, noting, “Flight reminds us of what Washington can do when a role hits him with a challenge that would floor a lesser actor. He’s a ball of fire, and his detailed, depth-charged, bruisingly true performance will be talked about for years.” Over at Goldderby.com, a site where experts predict the top showbiz awards, they’re giving 8:1 odds that Washington will take home an Academy Award.
But not everyone wants him to win. Over on Kulture Kritic, Dr. Boyce Watkins, while noting Washington’s “extraordinary performance” in Flight, wrote that he would find himself “a tad bit annoyed” if the actor were to take home an Academy Award. You see, Washington plays a character Watkins describes as “a serial liar, irresponsible father and alcoholic/drug addict.”
Watkins’ logic? “Black people tend to be recognized the most when we play roles that fit into inaccurate stereotypes that fit white America’s vision of what it means to be ‘authentically black,’” he says. “Much of that so-called artistic freedom is actually the vision of greedy corporations seeking to sell movie tickets in a racist society.”
His take on Flight prompted a response from Russell Simmons, who is moving to Los Angeles to create films. Simmons, like me, doesn’t see anything wrong with Washington portraying a darker side of humanity again.
“There should be nothing stereotypical about playing a drug addict or a drunk, regardless of your skin color,” Simmons responded. “Flight is a perfect example of how Hollywood can embrace a new American reality, where black people are pilots of airplanes and have problems just like white people… Denzel’s character doesn’t represent a black problem or a white problem; he represents an American problem. Flight is a classic American story of redemption.”
I’d like to see Black actors portray a range of well-written multi-dimensional characters, including those that are positive and negative. And while I can agree with Watkins that it seems not so coincidental that Black Oscar winners have garnered their awards for playing less-than-uplifting roles, I also must acknowledge that their performances were still good. Just as a character being positive shouldn’t be an excuse for the Academy to overlook them, neither should they be ignored, as Watkins is saying, because a character is negative. Black actors are, well, actors. Let them act, and be rewarded for great work.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk