Former "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington, who has three projects in the 22nd annual Pan African Film Festival running through this weekend, says the fatherly thread in his latest projects is no coincidence.
The actor portrays a small-town father who guides a son struggling with his sexuality in "Blackbird," based on the novel by Larry Duplechan. That screening, on Sunday, follows an earlier showing of Washington's star turn in "Blue Caprice," which portrays a twisted father-son-like relationship between John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the men behind the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks around Washington, D.C.
For Washington's third project in the festival, he served as co-producer on Stacey Muhammad's Web series, "For Colored Boys," a spin on the popular 1975 poem-turned-film "For Colored Girls…" The series, screening at the festival Friday night, follows a father's yearning to reunite with his family after a lengthy incarceration.
The string of roles connect back to his own childhood, says Washington, 50, sipping Scotch at Hal's Bar & Grill in Venice. He talked about the contradiction of not having a close relationship with his father yet still loving him — a man who, Washington says, was murdered when Washington was just 13. Later, a stepfather instilled a hard work ethic that the actor appreciates to this day, although the two failed to form much of a bond, he says.
"I found myself early on as an actor looking for that. It's part of my through-line," Washington says, adding that he's interested in the complexities of playing different types of fathers on-screen. "I'm very interested in looking at how to be the worst father on the planet and be one of the most supportive."
It's a through-line that includes the role in Spike Lee's "Clockers" as Victor Dunham, the clean-cut husband and father who has aspirations for a better life but falls under police suspicion. It also includes the hit TV drama "New York Undercover," in which Washington played a father looking to reconnect with his son amid a grisly murder.
The coming-of-age story "Blackbird," the festival's closing-night gala screening, follows church choir singer Randy (Julian Walker), who's helped by his father (Washington) in navigating the path to manhood. Oscar winner Mo'Nique ("Precious") returns to the screen as Claire Rousseau, a role that Washington says "won't win her a mother-of-the-year award."
"Blackbird" is about more than family dynamics, says Washington, father of an 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. The film touches on religion as well as interracial and same-sex relationships, subjects that Washington acknowledged can be taboo within the black community — and beyond, as the actor knows from his run on "Grey's Anatomy," when he apolgized for using a gay slur but was dismissed from the show in 2007. The film's director, Patrik-Ian Polk, has won praise for his previous work on TV's "Noah's Arc" and the film "The Skinny."
Washington remained tight-lipped about details of "Blackbird."
"I'm not going to cheat," Washington says. "Some people are going to come out of that movie with their hair on fire. Some people will be standing and cheering. I want to be there and see them get so passionate and so moved."
Washington's other acting showcase in the festival, "Blue Caprice," showed at the Sundance Film Festival last year and earned Washington a best actor nomination at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Washington says he agreed to that project without seeing a script; he signed on simply off the vision of Alexander Moors, shooting the film in less than a month.
"People thought we were making a movie about the D.C. snipers," Washington says, adding that, really, "We were making a movie about what happens when you have corrupt leadership. What happens when you have a naive youth following a toxic leader?"
But films represent more than acting opportunities for Washington, who has been producing — first on "Blue Caprice" and now on "For Colored Boys."
"I'm taking an immeasurable amount of wisdom and experience as a producer," he says. Among his takeaways: "It's not all about me."
What: Based on the novel by Larry Duplechan, starring Isaiah Washington and Mo'Nique and directed by Patrik-Ian Polk. Screening as part of the Pan African Film Festival
When: 6 p.m. Sunday; festival runs through Monday.
Where: Rave Cinemas 15, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 4020 Marlton Ave., Los Angeles
Cost: $100 closing night "Blackbird" gala; $6 to $12 for other screenings
Info: (310) 337-4737, http://www.paff.org