As I read Andrew O’Hehir’s review in Salon of Denzel Washington’s new film Flight, which opens this weekend, I kept trying to put my finger on what exactly it was about the tone of the piece that rubbed me the wrong way. The review, called “Denzel’s Coked-Up Take on the Sully Saga,” starts straight off with lofty praise of Washington’s eminent talent as an actor: “At this point it’s a total cliché to describe Denzel Washington as one of our greatest screen actors.” O’Hehir then proceeds to paint a portrait of Washington so great that he could be raceless.
Because that, it would appear, is what makes a black actor great—to transcend, or perhaps even shed, his blackness. He is that good.
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.
Despite his praise of Washington’s alluring demeanor, what follows is the tough pill that Washington could never actually be in league with Gable and Olivier because, well, he’s black. While an audience can be expected to suspend disbelief regarding an actor’s race or gender in the theatre, which tends to allow more room for artistic interpretation, when it comes to film, most audiences expect that the genre will adhere to a certain standard of realism.
In fact, O’Hehir does note that Washington is an actor born to play Shakespeare and would “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.”
In film, women are not cast to play men because they are women. Unless the role is scripted as a woman pretending to be a man (Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry) or a man pretending to be a woman (Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie). Similarly, an able-bodied actor can believably portray a disabled person (John Hawkes in The Sessions), a straight actor can play gay (Sean Penn in Milk), and a gay actor can play straight (Neil Patrick Harris in pretty much everything)—because that is what acting is, and there is no artifice involved. It’s not a gimmick. But to present a woman in the role of a man, or a black actor in the role of a white person, simply defies the laws of nature.
O’Hehir, who is a veteran and well-respected film critic, does recognize this, if not directly, and suggests what many white Americans who admirably long for racism to go away often suggest, and that is the salve of a hypothetical social construct. “Washington might fit best projected some centuries into the future, into a universe of ‘post-racial’ entertainment that none of us will ever see,” he writes. “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.”
It strikes me that O’Hehir is suggesting a couple of things here—the first being that Washington would be better appreciated in a racially blind world that will never exist, and second, that he is such a fine actor that he could pull off playing the white (slave-owning) United States President who abolished slavery in 1865. Both are a considerable stretch, but also, why is there any need for the stretch to begin with?
“Post-racial,” a term that stands right next to the word “diversity” in its complete and utter uselessness, has been argued over repeatedly in recent months, whereupon the prevailing attitude from black Americans, myself included, is that we are not and never will be post-racial. Further, only someone who has not felt the real impact of racial America would suggest its potential actuality and/or appeal.
For black Americans, there has long been a struggle to be seen in the first place, as Ralph Ellison wrote about so eloquently in The Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber, and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Over the course of hundreds of years, all that has been seen of black people is the color our skin, the racialization of our livelihood, for which, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, we have been grievously judged. There is a certain sense of integrity that comes with having endured both the neglect and the judgement.
But for white America, the notion of a world where black people are not seen as black, and all that being black entails from an outsider’s perspective, is a world with less guilt (for them) and more freedom (for blacks)—a kindler, gentler social culture in which race doesn’t matter. It’s not all that different from the peace-loving hippies who sang Kumbaya as a way of expressing their wish that we all get along. But the truth is, we can’t get along if we are not bringing our full selves and identities to the table (or the sing circle, as the case may be). It’s like the woman who applies makeup the morning after a one night stand while the man is still sleeping and then sneaks back into bed as if she wakes up just looking fully made up and gorgeous. Only blackness is not the same as makeup. It’s not removable and can’t be reapplied. And I’m OK with that.
What I’m not OK with is the assumption that I would be happier or Denzel Washington would be a better or more appreciated actor if we had the option to be seen as not black. Post-racist, I would applaud. Post-racial, I find self-serving and contrived. And while O’Hehir did not state outright his belief that a post-racial world is in our future, his musings on the possibility left me feeling cold and unseen.
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