Monday, February 18, 2013

Two Reasons Why Denzel Washington Won't Win Best Actor Oscar....and Thoughts on Why He Should

Denzel Washington deserves the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role from the Academy next week but he won't receive it.

Daniel Day-Lewis is likely to walk away with that award, for two reasons: 

  1.  Day-Lewis' performance as America's 16th President is  poignant and forceful.
  2. Academy voters will believe that our body politic at this juncture needs a larger-than-life cinematic characterization of a Commander-in-Chief who makes a strong, brave (if imperfect) stand against slavery and, tangentially, against racism.  

In short, a Best Actor Oscar to Day-Lewis's Lincoln will be sure to make whites in 2013 America feel good about themselves. 

This is the vanilla form of political expression that I anticipate the members of the Academy to engage in. 

But such a 'feel-good' vote, while not the least cynical, won't much lift the spirits of black Americans at this time.

More of us than not are experiencing dichotomies, challenges, and dashed hopes similar to those experienced by Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot. We mostly admire Lincoln, of course.  But Whitaker's challenges are familiar, and....close.  His third-reel redemption is an immediate beacon, bright, complicated, hopeful.

Yes, I am aware that it is hard to ignore the historic synergy of "Lincoln' and Day-Lewis' depiction. I mean, really. 

After all,  Lincoln freed the slaves, and here we are now, commencing the second term of our nation's first black president.....who happened to have declared his intention to run six years ago in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln began is political career!

Won't it be so deliciously.....symbolic and synergistic to select Day-Lewis' portrayal of  'The Great Emancipator' as the 'best' leading male acting performance in all of American movies for 2012...the same year that 'we' re-elected a black president

Well, yes, if one lacks insight and courage -- and I mean 'insight' in the acting context and courage in the political context. In a terrific New York Times essay, Nelson George recently argued for more nuanced portrayals in Hollywood films of blacks and characters from other historically marginalized groupsWashington's performance in 'Flight' is an excellent example of just such a role -- and of why such nuanced roles matter.

Washington's airline pilot, Whitaker, is a deeply flawed individual.  He's also a brave and heroic contemporary American.  He over-indulges on the personal pleasures (sex, drink, drugs).  He lies (to his ex-wife, to his son, to himself).   He also is sublimely self-confident in his professional skills, which comes in handy when the plane he's piloting experiences catastrophic equipment failure.  

The sequence in which Washington's character mentally wills and technically manipulates the failed plane to a nearly-safe landing is magnificent -- a perfect meshing of all the stunning technological wonders that are now at filmmakers' fingertips and of good old fashioned acting chops.

Later, after the story is officially grounded, and technical wizardry is no longer in the foreground, we are plunged into a human story that is as harrowing, draining, inspiring and authentically invigorating as the Civil War.

I know the story of the 16th President, almost by heart at this point.  I am awed and grateful for Abraham Lincoln's life and his devotion to humanitarian principles.  Yet the creative engine that fuels my forward motion comes most efficiently from real world examples -- individuals in the here and now who are capable of heroic acts of bravery, even if in a fictional context. The late-breaking revelations of creative liberties taken by Tony Kushner, author of the film, too, has cast a minor shadow over my admiration of the film "Lincoln."  (After I saw the film late last fall, I went on a Twitter tear about Kushner's excellent use of period language. "Pettifogging,' for example, is a word that should be invoked often by Beltway journalists covering the current Congress. What does it mean "Meanly petty.")

However if one is going to selectively call ''Creative License"  when presenting a fictionalized cinematic version of a well-known historic figure and moment, well, best the made up portions concern matters of wardrobe or menu items, not votes in Congress on the 13th Amendment, as Maureen Dowd at the Times argued.

Finally, I am sorry that I didn't write this post sooner. But my life of late is harrowing, inspiring, draining, and invigorating. I feel greater kinship to Whip Whitaker than I do President Lincoln, with all due respect to the Great Emancipator.


  1. Just saw "Flight" and Denzel's performance blew me away in what you rightly extol as a nuanced portrayal of a man whose high wire act is on the verge of collapse. I found myself caring deeply about him and not wanting him to survive his NTSB hearing without consequence. That I felt both emotions simultaneously speaks to your point. Here's to more nuanced roles in film -- for African Americans and everybody else as well! And to more actors of Washington's caliber who can pull it off.
    Vicki Haddock

  2. Thanks, Vicki. This one is a delicate proposition: How can you possibly be 'against' a great portrayal of Abraham Lincoln? I tend to see it in the affirmative, though, i.e., I'm not 'against' DD-L's performance, I am just more enthusiastic about and inspired by Washington's portrayal of Whitaker!