Denzel Washington leans forward and begins to draw upside down on the back of the newspaper lying on the coffee table. "I own a house built by a black architect in the 1930s," says the actor, sketching awkwardly. "His name was Paul Williams and he built some of the bigger homes in Beverly Hills, but he was a man who could not stand over his white clients while he talked to them. So he developed a technique of drawing like this."
It's a clever bit of performance by Washington, the kind of unexpected but telling detail that critics have admired in the Oscar-winning actor's best film roles. From the smoldering Pvt. Peterson in "A Soldier's Story," to the coolly understated Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom," to the defiant Civil War infantryman Trip in "Glory," critics have hailed Washington as America's best young black actor.
But such labels rankle the 35-year-old actor who insists that he has "no agenda," political or artistic, "other than to do what I want to do." Yet reluctant or not, Washington is gifted, handsome and black--that minority among minorities, a working black actor. More significantly, he is a leader among a handful of artists--a list that also includes Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover--who are redefining how black Americans are portrayed in film.
Like director Spike Lee, with whom the actor is paired in Lee's new jazz film "Mo' Better Blues," the director's first since his controversial "Do the Right Thing," Washington is riding a series of cinematic successes that are not only fueling his own career but helping shape the role of black-Americans in Hollywood.
From the black exploitation films of the '60s to the black-white buddy films of today, black-American actors have been largely limited by the roles that Hollywood deemed good box office. Even now, when more black actors are working on television and in film than at any time in the past several decades, the perception persists that in an industry dominated by white male studio executives--a position that was attacked during the recent NAACP conference held in Los Angeles--that black actors cannot carry a mass-marketed feature film.
Now Washington is challenging those limitations in his new role as head of his own film production company, a two-year, non-exclusive development arrangement that Washington and his partner, Flo Allen, a former William Morris agent, have signed with Tri-Star Pictures. For Washington, who once confessed that "one of the hardest things about being black in Hollywood is the loneliness of waiting for the opportunities," the transition to becoming a producer is significant.
"Look, I just think I've been given the opportunity to make some pictures and that's what I'm going to do," says the actor about his new producing venture. "The first thing is to try and make good movies. As for what the significance of that will be, we'll see."
It is the same kind of caution flag that Washington waved when Sir Richard Attenborough, director of "Cry Freedom," likened the model-handsome Washington to actor Sidney Poitier a couple years ago. That bit of racial pigeonholing angered more than pleased the actor, who is swift to dismiss questions about his place in Hollywood with a terse, "To hell with labels, that's not who I am."
Indeed, Washington's discomfiture with the press is well-known. Not only does he guard his private life with a kind of Garbo-like intensity (he is married to the singer Pauletta Pearson and has two young children) but he reluctantly agrees to sit for an interview only after months of being stalked. And during the conversation in his press agent's office, Washington moves as restlessly as an athlete kept too long on the bench. "I talk about issues through my acting, not through what I say in interviews," he says with some agitation.
He is in New York, on the crest of his Oscar win, to tackle one of Shakespeare's trickiest protagonists, "Richard III." It is a production, part of Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival free series in Central Park, that will have its first performances next weekend concurrent with the nationwide release of Lee's "Mo' Better Blues," a film set in modern-day Brooklyn in which Washington plays Bleek Gilliam, a jazz trumpeter.
The two roles are poles apart--proof of Washington's current artistic reach, one made possible by the "deluge of scripts after the Oscar win," according to partner and manager Allen, who adds that Tri-Star was one of several studios that approached Washington about a production arrangement. Indeed, Washington is using his Oscar and now his producer's clout to keep his acting options open, the pigeonholers at bay. "This is the opportunity for Denzel to produce his own films," adds Allen, "and the kinds of films that wouldn't necessarily" get made elsewhere."
Says Tri-Star's Mike Medavoy: "Denzel is a great actor who can do comedy, do drama and who can carry a film. His career is just starting and this arrangement will enable him to do all kinds of projects, all kinds of films. To categorize them as appealing to a black or white audience is ridiculous. He is making movies about the human condition."
While Allen and Washington are culling through possible future projects--none of which they or Medavoy will discuss--Washington is already scheduled to film "Ricochet" this November, an action picture produced by Joel Silver of "48 HRS." and "Die Hard" fame. Before that, Washington will take a cut in pay to play a carpet salesman in a small art film, "Mississippi Masala," directed by Mira Nair, the Indian filmmaker who directed "Salaam Bombay!" After that, Washington expects to play Malcolm X, the assassinated Black Muslim leader, in a much-anticipated film directed by Norman Jewison and written by Charles Fuller, the director and writer of "A Soldier's Story."
"People say I pick political roles," argues Washington. "I say I'm attracted to parts that are good stories."
Earlier this summer, Washington walked away from co-starring in a film with Michelle Pfeiffer--Washington cites artistic differences with his co-star--to do "Richard III." The production marks Washington's first return to Shakespeare since he played the lead in a student production of "Othello" nearly 15 years ago at New York's Fordham University, the New York-born actor's alma mater. "Everyone said, 'Why are you doing a play now,' " says Washington. "But it's perfect for my craft. It's not an easy role, but my director Robin Phillips is a strong actor's director and working with him is a real education, like going back to school."
Papp, producing director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, cast Washington in the role. He says he became interested in Washington after seeing him co-star in "Cry Freedom," with actor Kevin Kline, who played "Hamlet" at the Public Theater earlier this year. "I am always interested in finding minorities to play Shakespeare and there hadn't been a black leading man for a long time," says Papp. "And Denzel seemed very heroic in both 'Cry Freedom' and 'Glory.' "
Already some eyebrows have been arched at the artistic risks involved. "It takes a lot of nerve to present a villain who is black," says Time magazine theater critic William A. Henry III. "It takes a lot of nerve on Papp's part and on Denzel's part. But some of (Washington's) best work I think was done in 'A Soldier's Story' and that was an (unsympathetic) role too."
Adds Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert: "Black actors are in a terrific bind in this country. There is no real faith that they can sell a picture and frequently they are not permitted to demonstrate that kind of (acting) range. And everyone knows that villains are more interesting to play. But Denzel and a few other black actors, such as Morgan Freeman, don't define themselves that way. "
But ask Washington about the impact of his playing "Richard III" and the response is immediate and unalloyed. "What does that mean, a black villain?" he asks. "How do you think I feel sitting here having people say, black this and black that, as if that's all I am? First of all, I'm a man. Let's talk about about that. Or as an actor, ask me how I feel about things. But the questions are always 'as a black . . .,' 'as a black . . .,' 'as a black. . . .' I'm very proud to be black but black is not all I am. That's my cultural historical background, my genetic makeup, but it's not all of who I am nor is the basis from which I answer every question. I get very upset when I hear 'black villain,' as opposed to a 'white villain' or an 'Italian villain.' I don't think I should be talked to only as a black actor . . . I think its very racist."
It's a similar response that Washington has prepared for critics of Lee's "Mo' Better Blues," the much-anticipated film by the country's pre-eminent black filmmaker. That film--the fourth in the director's modest but attention-grabbing opus that began with "She's Gotta Have It" five years ago--was hailed as Lee's breakthrough film when it opened last summer; the film was also condemned by some critics and social leaders as advocating racial violence.
Now comes "Mo' Better Blues," a lushly scored, sensuous jazz film that is a leap ahead for the director in terms of expense--at $10 million, the film is nearly double the cost of "Do the Right Thing"--and technical sophistication. It is also one of Lee's least overtly political films in its exploration of racial issues. Like "She's Gotta Have It," "Mo' Better Blues" traffics more in sexual politics than racial issues. Even the film's title is a sexual euphemism. And the bulk of the film tracks the rise and fall of Bleek Gilliam, a two-timing trumpeter and ambitious leader of a black jazz quintet in Brooklyn.
Washington says was intrigued by the films' exploration of the reluctance by some black-Americans to support their own culture, noting that at the end of "Mo' Better Blue" there is a scene where Bleek admonishes his band, "If we had to depend on black people, we would starve. . . . We don't support our own heritage."
Adds Lee, "That's an attitude I've heard from a lot of black jazz musicians, including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, that maybe people should know about John Coltrane as much as they know about Run DMC."
Washington is braced for more than the usual criticisms of "Mo' Better Blues." "People are going to say this ain't Spike, but that's too damn bad," says the actor. "Spike is not just 'Do the Right Thing,' he is all the films we've seen so far. People expect Spike to be the angry black man again, but he's moved on to something else. I told Spike people are going to give you a hard time because we're not running around in sneakers and with 15 parts in our head and there is no issue they can put their thumb on."
"Mo' Better Blues" is a film, however, that Washington says raises many of the sexual issues explored in Lee's "She's Gotta Have It"--issues that were sidestepped in Washington's earlier film, "The Mighty Quinn," in which a love scene between Washington and actress Mimi Rogers was edited out. "When they shot that scene, I said 'you're wasting your film, this isn't going to be in there,' and they did cut it out," says the actor, who has his first explicit love scenes in this film. "What I liked about Spike's first film was that it hit some points that hadn't been hit in movies--like black people kissing on film. I can recall feeling uncomfortable watching black people kiss (in "She's Gotta Have It"). We're not used to seeing that on screen."
Lee concurs. "White audiences have long had a problem with black sexuality. Denzel is a matinee idol--he has a huge female following--but he has never had a film to exploit that persona until now. And it is much more interesting to play a character who is flawed than one who is angelic."
Although Washington admits that shooting the R-rated love scenes created a few moments of friction on the set--"It was the only time (Spike and I) bumped heads," he says--the actor says he struggled to maintain that sense of isolation that he has become known for during a film's shoot, for staying in character and to himself.
"He's more of a loner," says actor Bill Nunn, who has appeared in three out of Lee's four films and plays the bass in "Mo' Better Blues." "Spike's movies are always a team kind of situation, real loose where nobody takes themselves too seriously. He (Washington) had to adjust to that."
It's a characterization that Washington does not dispute. "I know on Spike's movie some people were saying, 'He's one of those Hollywood actors who won't talk to anybody.' But I was trying to learn this music and people just misinterpreted that, thought I was stuck-up. I'm usually one of only a few black people on a set, so it's easier for me to alienate myself. But on this film, it was hard to do that. I'm concerned that maybe I didn't concentrate enough."
About the film overall, Washington says, smiling, "I don't have as much of an agenda as Spike does. I'm not trying to move people in any area, it's just the movie business, you know. There has been no plan (to his career). I am attracted to certain parts and I've learned a lot from them, about history, culture, myself, how the world views black people and how black people view the world."
It is a similar attitude that Washington brings to his new role of producer, a role that he describes as "being a leading man (brings) no element of control, being a producer brings an element of control."
Presumably it is a measure of autonomy than will help ameliorate some of Washington's past experiences as an actor, such as his earlier film, "The Mighty Quinn," which was swiftly abandoned by MGM-UA during its release last year. "I was angry when the studio didn't get behind the picture," says Washington. "They had a bigger film, 'Leviathan,' and they were in trouble at the time. But they had said, 'If you come out and hit these numbers we'll get behind it.' Well, we came out with better numbers and they didn't get behind it. That really, that attitude (that the film only appealed to a black audience) was it."
Even making "Glory" was something of a turning point for the actor, who says he has been considering producing his own films for some time. "Obviously a film like 'Glory' was a great opportunity to expose a part of history that just isn't taught," says Washington. "Like how can I be 35 years old and never been taught about black soldiers being a part of the Civil War. That's something to ask--how can that happen?"
About his future projects, Washington will only say that, "I think all films can speak to people across color lines. I don't think that's a new concept. Do you think that only Italians go see (Martin) Scorsese's films, that only Britons go see (Richard) Attenborough's films, that only Canadians go see Norman Jewison's films? You have to question that. I think people go to good movies."
"The only way to look at this is (continuing) the variety I've tried for, the new and different challenges. That's what I've done and what we're trying to do at Tri-Star. . . . People say, 'You're the guy that's gonna' carry the torch for history,' " says Washington. "But I'm not that guy. I just want to do the things I want to do . . . I'm not anti-black or shunning my own blackness. But if we are making any progress, if Hollywood is getting any better, it has to start with each one of us."