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Lights, Camera--Any Action? : Seeking ‘Ground Not Yet Broken’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

At 32, Denzel Washington earned one of Hollywood’s most coveted honors--an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of South African activist Steve Biko in “Cry Freedom.” Then he waited for the phone to ring.

It rang. Once.

“I didn’t get 20 offers right after ‘Cry Freedom,’ ” says Washington. “I got one--for ‘The Mighty Quinn.’ That was it.”

So much for the critical acclaim and magazine covers that came his way after his performances in “Cry Freedom,” “A Soldier’s Story” and the TV series “St. Elsewhere.” (Washington could attract similar attention for his blistering portrayal of a British paratrooper in “For Queen and Country,” which opens next month.)

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So much, too, for Washington’s drop-dead sexy looks, which drew hordes of autograph-seeking women backstage after his performances in the Broadway play “Checkmates” last year. More recently, Washington displayed an uncanny ability to flirt with the camera in his role as the starched but boyish Jamaican police chief in the current film “The Mighty Quinn.”

“He has a very still quality, like Eastwood,” says Martin Stellman, director of “For Queen and Country.” “He’s almost minimalist in his expressions and gestures and movement. Yet he still manages to be powerful and charismatic on the screen.”

Critics and studio executives have compared Washington with Sidney Poitier as well. But in the year following his Academy Award nomination, the younger actor has learned a lesson that Poitier detailed in his own autobiography, “This Life”: Major film parts for black actors are few and far between. For romantic black leading men like Washington, they’re rare indeed, and it’s unlikely that an Oscar nomination is going to change that.

Still, that’s the niche that Washington is determined to carve out for himself. “It’s ground that hasn’t been broken,” the actor says, “that’s what I’m here to do.”

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It won’t always be easy, as Washington found out with “The Mighty Quinn,” a role that attracted him because of the opportunity to play a romantic lead, to “get the girl,” as he puts it. The film, which has grossed $4.2 million to date, received little national attention and was released in only a few markets. Its producers have blamed MGM/UA, which they say treated “Quinn” as a film that would appeal only to black audiences.

Moreover, at MGM/UA’s request, the producers cut out a scene in which Washington’s character, who is married to a Jamaican singer, kisses a white woman (the bored, beautiful and very rich Hadley, played by Mimi Rogers). According to executive producer Dale Pollock, audiences--particularly black audiences--reacted angrily to the scene during research screenings.

“It got this really visceral reaction,” Pollock recalls. “They went nuts. I still think there’s a sensitivity when you have a black man kiss a white woman.”

But to Washington, that editing change is symbolic of what he’s up against as a black leading man in Hollywood. “It’s sad that it goes on in life,” he says of interracial relationships, “but that it can’t go on on-screen.”

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But racial issues in Hollywood aren’t always so clear-cut as this one. And as he talks about his experience as a black actor in white-run Hollywood, Washington begins to sound like a man still wrestling with his own beliefs, still developing a personal strategy for matching realism with idealism.

He joins the chorus of attacks on “Mississippi Burning,” saying the film “is not our history. There were not two white FBI men who came in and made everything better” during the turbulent ‘60s civil rights era in the South. Yet he acknowledges that “Cry Freedom” can be criticized on the same grounds as “Mississippi Burning"--that is, for telling a black story through white characters. (“Cry Freedom” focuses on Biko’s relationship with a white journalist played by Kevin Kline.)

“A cop-out too? Yeah, yeah,” Washington says, nodding knowingly when he is asked about “Cry Freedom.” “You cannot sell the public short. The public is more sophisticated than we give them credit for.”

Moreover, to listen to Washington talk, one would think that he is drawn to roles in which race--and racism--are not issues. “Look at successful buddy films that are black and white, like ‘Lethal Weapon,’ ” he says. “There’s nothing in it about the ‘Black Experience’ and you notice that about $65 million worth of people went to see it. I just think people are tired of hearing about racism, racism. Give it a rest. Do something positive, don’t just show it. “

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But, in fact, Washington is drawn to serious roles in which race is an issue. “Cry Freedom,” of course, was set against the backdrop of apartheid in South Africa. In “For Queen and Country,” Washington’s West Indies-born character must fight both institutional and personal racism in London, even though he had been part of an elite paratrooper regiment during the Falklands War.

Last week, Washington finished filming Tri-Star’s “Glory,” in which he plays a runaway slave who serves in a black regiment during the Civil War.

“I had this real block about doing slave films, you know, beatings and that,” Washington explains. “But as I get into it, I realize that our history as black Americans is so brutal in this country. Learning what my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers went through has been a real education. It gives me a strength.”

Unlike some other films dealing with racism, Washington says, “there’s a payoff . . . It shows how (black and white troops) come together and work together. That’s why I do it.” Washington co-stars in the film with Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.

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Washington’s next project--part comedy, part drama--is called “Heart Condition.” He plays a handsome, wealthy man who falls in love with the same woman as a bigoted, insecure man played by Bob Hoskins. But “Heart Condition” director Jim Parriott recalls that Washington asked the film makers to tone down some of the racism in Hoskins’ character before he agreed to accept the role. “We softened a lot of the stuff that he thought was over the top,” Parriott said.

Despite the dearth of roles for black actors in Hollywood, Washington has kept busy--even if it meant that most of his projects have come from independent production companies such as Atlantic (“For Queen and Country”), New Line (“Heart Condition”) and A & M Films (which produced “The Mighty Quinn,” though it was financed and distributed by MGM/UA).

In some cases, Washington has had to go out looking for attractive projects, rather than wait for them to come his way. After reading the “For Queen and Country” script, he went straight to director Martin Stellman and asked for the part. “It was a good script,” says Washington, “better than anything I’ve been offered here.”

But Stellman had to be persuaded. “I was skeptical,” he recalls. “My initial instinct was to cast a British black actor. But Denzel had gotten hold of the script, and he made it known he was desperate to do this project.”

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Just as he would have to master a Jamaican accent for “Quinn,” Washington had to train himself to speak with a South East London accent for “Queen and Country.” “It’s a very difficult accent to master,” particularly for Americans, Stellman noted.

Washington also trained with the British military and lived with a family in a South London housing project--not unlike his childhood neighborhood in New York, he says--to prepare for the film.

Film makers describe Washington as intense and focused during production. Stellman says the experience of directing Washington made him feel like a trainer whispering instructions to a boxer in between rounds. “He works out of an interior process,” adds Pollock. “He’s looking inward.”

It’s the same kind of intensity and energy that Washington will need to draw on in the coming years as he forges new ground for black leading men.

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