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The Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington movie everybody forgot

Denzel Washington’s performance in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is one of his least typical — and one of his best.

Denzel Washington in 1970’s era hair and glasses.
Denzel Washington stars in the title role of Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Sony Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I first watched Roman J. Israel, Esq., in 2017, I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it, as the review I published at the time makes clear. I found its story centerless, bobbing and weaving all over the place to no great effect. I liked Denzel Washington in the title role and Colin Farrell as an amoral lawyer trying to recapture what made him love the law in the first place and ... that was about it.

But in the nearly five years since the movie’s release, Roman J. Israel, Esq. has grown on me. It still feels centerless, but I increasingly see that as a strength of the movie. And Washington’s performance has stuck with me in a way few other star turns as showy as this one have.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., doesn’t have much of a traditional plot. Roman has worked his whole life to make the world a better place, first as a civil rights activist and then as a low-paid lawyer focused largely on protecting the civil rights of criminal defendants. (His life’s work involves preparing a brief that would argue for sweeping reforms to the plea bargain system.) When his longtime boss dies, Roman is swept up into the world of a high-profile, ritzy LA law firm, where he serves as a foil for Farrell’s George, who simultaneously admires Roman and finds him deeply irritating.

Throughout the film, it seems as though Roman may be neurodivergent in some way, though the film never says he is one way or the other. Washington’s performance zeroes in on the way Roman’s moral code seems as though it stems from a certainty that the world should have inviolable rules. That certainty manifests as an inflexibility throughout the movie that means Roman struggles in social situations. He struggles to navigate interpersonal relationships with people he’s just met, and he rarely even attempts to make arguments in court.

I don’t think the film’s primary interests lie in whether Roman is on the autism spectrum or not, but rather than go way over the top with physical tics, in the way many actors would, Washington takes his usual skill with motormouth dialogue and turns everything down. Roman speaks with the same patter Washington always does, but he keeps everything at a low simmer. He’s not going to boil over. He’s just trying to keep things steady. That choice is why Washington’s work succeeds where so many other “maybe neurodivergent” star turns do not.

Denzel Washington is an enormous movie star, but one of the things I love about him is that he will alternate the kinds of high-intensity roles he became best known for with weirder and smaller parts that show off his range as an actor. Even when he’s playing “a Denzel Washington part,” as he is in his currently Oscar-nominated turn in The Tragedy of Macbeth, he’ll make some fascinating performance choices you don’t see coming. His Macbeth, for instance, constantly seems as though he’s improvising his way out of one bad situation into an even worse one.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. was Washington’s immediate follow-up to his titanic, thundering performance as Troy Maxson in his 2016 adaptation of August Wilson’s landmark play Fences. (In addition to starring, Washington also directed.) It’s hard to imagine two roles more dissimilar than Troy and Roman. The former is all smoldering frustration, ready to explode, while the latter is a man trying like hell to just bring something good to the world.

In terms of screen acting, it’s often easier for critics and audiences to immediately appreciate the power an actor can bring to a character like Troy, whose lifetime of resentments feel like they might boil over into something terrifying at any moment. But it’s important not to overlook how difficult it is to play a character like Roman.

I’ve talked to a number of actor friends over the years about which roles are hardest for them to play, and many have mentioned the difficulty of playing a character who is unfailingly moral and decent. It’s easier to watch someone who is always making the wrong choices because doing the wrong thing is often a lot more fun. Watching somebody who is just trying to do the right thing, even when the world gets in their way? That’s much, much harder for an actor to make compelling.

Yet that’s exactly what Washington does in Roman. He nails how annoying someone with a committed, unflinching moral compass can be, in a way I didn’t quite appreciate in my earlier review. In every scene, Roman walks into a room where somebody assumes that they can corrupt him, and in every scene, Roman walks out of the room uncorrupted. That arc could be boring and undramatic, but I think the movie understands that the world too often bulldozes people like Roman, no matter how much they look and act like Denzel Washington.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., was the second film from director Dan Gilroy. The longtime screenwriter had made his directing debut with the hugely acclaimed 2014 film Nightcrawler, in which Jake Gyllenhaal played a gleefully malevolent videographer, traveling the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in search of bleak, bloody footage to sell to the news. Intriguingly, Nightcrawler and Roman function as mirrors of each other. The former argues that the amoral get their way through simply insisting they should, while the latter argues that in an amoral world, the moral can still succeed — but only up to a certain point.

From that idea springs the tension of Roman J. Israel, Esq., and the genius of casting Washington in the role. We’re used to seeing Washington bulldoze people in movies. He’s effortlessly charismatic, and he tends to play characters who get their way. Roman is a good guy, and we’d expect a good guy played by Denzel Washington to triumph, right? Roman J. Israel, Esq., argues that maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe the world is too broken to let even a good man played by a charismatic movie star succeed for too long.

I haven’t warmed on Roman J. Israel, Esq., to the point where I think it’s a secret masterpiece or anything, but it’s a movie that moved into my brain for some time after I initially dismissed it. Not everything in it works, but just enough does — especially Washington’s performance — that I keep pondering its themes and characters, years after I first saw it. Movies about the difficulty of being good are common. Movies that come at that theme in as roundabout a way as this one does are worth treasuring, even when not everything in them works.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., is available for digital rental and purchase. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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