|Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. © 2017 Sony Pictures|
Awkward Gentleman, Spiritual Knight
“He’s on a spiritual journey, but he doesn’t know it,” says Denzel Washington about his character, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Many critics did not seem to know that either, judging from their reviews. Denzel Washington’s performance did get unanimous praise, including an Oscar nomination, but reviewers I respect said things about the movie like this: “mired in the predictable” (Peter Travers), “milquetoast… cop-out… unresolved” (Alyssa Rosenberg), and “appealing if ultimately frustrating” (Ann Hornaday). I suspect their reaction was due to the difference in tone from writer-director Dan Gilroy's previous film, Nightcrawler.
When my wife and I watched it, we did not have those reactions, so I wanted to figure out why. I think it’s because we were viewing it with a spiritual agenda. To be clear, we thought Washington was great, but we also enjoyed the arc of the story and its resolution. Underlying that story was a spiritual dimension of sin, confession, and redemption, and some Christian allegory.
Denzel Washington portrays Roman J. Israel, a socially awkward (possibly on the autism spectrum) lawyer working behind the scenes with well-known civil rights lawyer William Henry Jackson. When Jackson has a heart attack, Israel is thrust out of his den of safety into challenges he does not seem equipped for. Roman is stalwart in his principles of merciful righteousness, even if they are awkwardly declared. He defends one client as affected by “a legion of forces beyond his control.” He says, “each one of us is better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” These statements will have a different meaning for him later.
To a teenage client, he says, “You're being overcharged to accept and plea to keep things moving. They want to punish you for asking for a day in court. It's a volume business.” This is the subject of Roman's magnum opus lawsuit that he works on in his spare time.
Roman is frustrated in his attempts to deal directly with the justice system. His efforts anger a judge who finds him in contempt of court. Without Jackson, his law office is closed, and he is jobless. He is offered a job by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a fashionable, high-priced lawyer, nearly the polar opposite of Israel. He declines and insults Pierce in the process. He tries to get a job with a civil rights group, but it doesn’t pay. Ultimately, he fails to find gainful employment anywhere else, and ends up working at Pierce’s high-priced law firm. There, he has to defend their expensive rates to modest clients who have to deplete their savings or mortgage their home. This leads to other compromises and his fall ensues. Roman says he is tired of “doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” yet others are inspired by his decades of fighting for civil rights and representing the needy. This contradiction leads to turmoil in Roman, bred by his hypocrisy.
I recommend the movie not just for Denzel Washington’s performance, which is worthy by itself, but for the story by writer and director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), and supporting actors, especially Colin Farrell. Israel starts to bring out Pierce’s long-smothered ideals. Roman tells Pierce “we’re agents of change, every one of us,” and shows him his giant class-action lawsuit documents. In the same way, Israel inspires Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo, It Comes at Night), who he meets at the civil rights non-profit.
Christians often say they are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-15 in the Bible), and Roman is clearly a model for that. At least, he is not of this time: sporting a flip-phone; an iPod with Walkman headphones; an Afro; rumpled, ill-fitting suits; bulky glasses.
Spoilers follow. The movie begins with Israel typing up a petition for the court -- the Supreme Court of Absolute Universal Law. He is both the prosecutor and the defendant, and the charge is hypocrisy and “turning his back on everything he ever claimed to stand for.” Who would the judge at this court be? God?
A flashback to three weeks prior begins, and we see Roman struggle with the world, and succumb to disillusionment. First, his partner suffers a terminal heart attack, removing his buffer against the world, then his job goes away, and without severance. Unemployed, he finds nothing, and is humiliated twice at a civil rights non-profit group. His first compromise is going to work for Pierce, whom he had previously judged and insulted. He is chastised there for insulting a law partner in response to a tasteless joke. Then, going against Pierce’s wishes, he rejects a plea bargain for a client, insulting the prosecutor, and neglects to tell the client. Roman’s insults are not meant to be mean, but honest, blunt appraisals of people’s roles in a broken justice system. The client, who was hoping to cooperate and receive protective custody, is killed in jail. Roman is called to the carpet, but not fired.
On his way home, a drug addict pleads with Roman for money. Roman tries to give him meal tickets for a mission. The man attacks him while Roman loudly protests, “you’ve got the wrong guy,” as if to say, I’m on your side, why are you attacking me?
The last step in his downward slide is a visit to a comatose Jackson in the hospital. There, Roman tells Jackson’s wife he had thought the law practice was "built on solid ground,” but that “we filed the wrong brief in the wrong court to the wrong judge.” In Luke 6:48-9, Jesus says that his teaching is solid ground. Would Jesus then be the right judge? Roman leaves her hurt and confused, saying that he wants a maple-glazed turkey bacon donut that he had read about.
When this series of encounters breaks something inside Roman, he compromises and falls into temptation to sin. (In fact, many of his previous outbursts can be seen as demonstrating the sin of pride.) He breaks attorney-client privilege for reward money. He begins to live for himself, then feels guilt as he is praised by Maya and Pierce for his selflessness. Roman tells Maya that “purity can’t survive in this world.” At Jackson’s funeral, he says “the real enemies aren’t outside, they’re within.”
He begins to fear for his life once his betrayal is found out – by a jailed client who says “You broke your own law! Privileged information!” He considers running but decides that was a bad decision. Finally, in a version of praying and fasting, he delves ever deeper into law books, to develop the aforementioned petition. He tells a colleague that “I believe I’ll be unavailable for the foreseeable future.” He tells Maya “I’m going away… where they send me. Something has occurred.”
Roman then calls money “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” (See Genesis 2:17 and 1 Timothy 6:10 in the Bible.) Unknown to viewers until later, he has already returned the unspent portion of the reward money. In an accompanying note, he writes “taking it was wrong. We are all formed of frailty and error. Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly. That is the first law of nature.” (See Matthew 6:15 and 7:12 in the Bible.) We should recognize this as a William Henry Jackson quote, which Pierce also quotes.
Pierce confronts Roman about the money and Roman tells him about his petition. Pierce thinks Roman is crazy, or at least should plead that he is. But Roman says he has “never been clearer,” and is turning himself in. He says he has had a “revelation,” will convict himself, and grant forgiveness to himself. He says his entire defense is the “unequivocal recitation of the truth.” This all sounds like confession. He has already initiated restitution by returning the bulk of the money.
At the end, Roman leaves his lawsuit, whose intent is to get justice for the mercilessly accused. Pierce follows through to file it. In the Bible, Jesus reads aloud Isaiah 61:1, which says, said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Luke 4:18) In the same passage, he says “the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” And this is the effect Roman has on Maya.
One inspirational, allegorical event that inspired Maya was when she and Roman found a dead man on the sidewalk. Two white police officers stop to see what’s going on and order Roman not to touch the body as he puts his business card in the corpse’s pocket. Israel defies them in the deceased man’s interest, saying that he wants to be called so he can take care of the man’s body. Then the man gets up and walks away, ending the stand-off. The police leave, and Maya is impressed at Israel’s defiance, saying “That was unbelievable,” and “no one does that.” But it also seems as if Israel has just resurrected the dead, and her words could also mean that. Putting his business card on the man to take care of him after death also seems symbolic: as if claiming him, as Jesus in Revelation 2:17 gives a new name to overcomers.
Speaking of names, Roman and Israel are opposed in the Bible, with Rome occupying Israel. Israel was the oppressed and Rome the military state oppressor. Could J stand for Jesus? Pierce is Israel’s foil. Jesus was pierced on the cross, as Psalm 22:16 prophesied. Jesus was prosecutor, defendant, and sacrificial lamb all in one.
Roman is once asked what "esquire" means, and he says, "It’s a designation in the legal arena; a title of dignity, slightly above gentleman, and below knight." Christianity Today magazine asked, “Do We Need another Denzel Washington Christ figure?” I don’t know that I agree with the tone of the question. I, for one, am happy that we got this movie.