Words by Terry Shropshire Images by Hiltron Bailey for Steed Media Service
NEW YORK – A battalion of ominous black storm clouds, teeming with atmosphere-altering motives, invades the airspace above Upper Manhattan and menacingly sizes up the world-renowned Apollo Theater. The sun, which threw down a blanket of warmth just moments earlier, beats a hasty retreat behind the horizon. These aerial intruders seem intent on mocking this most momentous (and rarest) of occasions as it prepares Harlem and the world premiere of American Gangster for a torrential thrashing.
But for all of its pretense and posturing, the clouds merely belched some minor precipitation, opting instead to survey the sensational spectacle below. There were enough stars in attendance to decorate a Christmas tree in Times Square. The requisite contingent of hip-hop stars were orbited by a constellation of hangers-on, and flanked by female groupies with enough meat on them to feed a pride of lions for a week.
click to see this photogallery
Denzel Hayes Washington Jr., regal in presence and resplendent in appearance, looked at least 10 years younger than his 52 years. The acclaimed actor approached the red carpet following a palatial procession of family, friends and dignitaries which included; his wife of 24 years, Pauletta (Pearson) Washington, Diddy, Jay-Z, TV empress Barbara Walters, Method Man, L.A. Reid, Judge Greg Mathis and Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as A-list thespians Diane Lane, Armand Assante, Josh Brolin and Cuba Gooding Jr. Notables like Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams, comedian Damon Wayans, and Mel Gibson came out to the Los Angeles premiere a week later. Just before the red carpet tent was closed, Washington and those massive walls of humanity called his bodyguards escorted the local hero to the pandemonium behind the barricades to shake hands with his frenetic fans. When they saw their “Denzel” coming, they unfurled bloodcurdling screams that were loud enough to halt birds in mid-flight.
The fact that organizers chose to hold the premiere and afterparty in Harlem was shocking to most reporters, who are accustomed to the more ostentatious hotel palaces further south in Midtown Manhattan. Another departure from convention was the decision by Hollywood moguls to shell out big money to make the film, American Gangster, about African American crime figure Frank Lucas. Detailed extensively in national publications, Lucas’ real-life story is astonishing to most, because of the sheer depth and scope of his international empire and the absolute audacity of his will. Frank Lucas was a ‘70sera gangster whose meteoric rise in the international heroin enterprise elevated his status above that of the Italian Mafia — even to the point that some of the mafiosi worked for him. So when Washington is asked about where American Gangster falls within the pantheon of classic gangster films (i.e., the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Scarface, etc.), he speaks about this crime of omission in the nation’s history.
“Well, I can say for one, of all those films that you mentioned, there [are] no black people in any of them,” says the two-time Academy Award winner. “So for one, this is a Harlem story about a guy who’s a kingpin, a different kind of kingpin. The situation is basically the same, different movies of course, the business was the same. But this is different; it’s dealing with a guy from Uptown.”
Washington’s family is also from Uptown (his mother was born in Harlem and he was raised in nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y.), which partially explains why locals treat him like a priceless artifact. After three decades in the business, Washington is accustomed to such genuflection whenever he ventures out into public . What is not so well-known is the universal admiration he garners from those in the industry. There is something about the man known simply as Denzel, that after having worked with him, actors emerge from the collaboration as if they’ve experienced a religious conversion. And we’re not just talking about B-level, nebulous schlebs panting over Washington like lapdog flunkies. These are longtime moviemakers and thespians that often provide unsolicited testimony to Washington’s singular greatness. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) called his work with Washington on Philadelphia like “going to film school,” adding that he learned more about acting from Washington than anyone he ever met. Last year, two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, who starred opposite Washington in Inside Man, fawned over him like a teenager with a crush, saying “he is simply the best actor I’ve ever worked with.”
And who will ever forget the frenetic, one-woman cheerleading campaign Julia Roberts engineered to help (in her mind, anyways) Washington bring home the Oscar for Training Day in 2001. “He is the best actor of this generation, hands down. I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for Best Actress, and Denzel doesn’t have one for Best Actor,” Roberts told People magazine that year. “He should be on his third Oscar by now, and that might not be enough.”
His extraordinary acting skills alone aren’t the only justification for the level of respect he receives inside and outside the industry. True, Washington has already received the most Oscars (two) and the most Academy Award nominations (five) of any actor of color in the annals of the motion picture industry. Some point to his sense of priorities, his ordinary/everyman disposition, and his undying devotion to his family, whom he has fiercely cordoned off from media scrutiny.
“Acting for me is like making a living. But it’s not my life,” he says. And while many other stars have subsisted on Hollywood fame, mone and stature, while their families suffered from emotional malnourishment, Washington has sidestepped fame’s delectable and sometimes hypnotic trappings. He simply has something that provides infinitely more sustenance. “My wife, my children…that’s life. That’s the miracle of what life’s all about.”
For Washington, life is all about cheering on his oldest son, 23-year-old John David. He was frequently spotted cheering at Morehouse College football games, prior to John’s David’s being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2006. Life is about nurturing the scholastic genius of his eldest daughter, 20-year-old Katia, who is now attending Yale University. It’s about raising his twins, 16-year-olds Olivia and Malcolm, the latter being named for the fiery civil rights leader Malcolm X. Life is about renewing his commitment to the woman of his dreams, Pauletta, the woman he met in 1977 on the set of his first film role, Wilma, the story of legendary track star Wilma Rudolph. In 1995, the couple renewed their wedding vows in South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the venerated South African apartheid abolitionist, officiated the ceremony. Life is about laughing about Halloween trick-ortreat visits from baseball megastar Barry Bonds and 100 of Bonds’ friends. Or it’s simply hanging out with the families of Magic Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson in the same Beverly Hills neighborhood. His devotion and zealous guarding of personal relationships, as well as the sustenance he has received from them, may have helped him avoid becoming prey to scandal-seeking tabloids. There was the brief editorial hiccup about an alleged tryst with Out of Time co-star Sanaa Lathan. But that brief flare-up of a rumor quickly died for lack of oxygen and credibility.
While superstars of many genres are begrudgingly admired for their unparalleled skills but are about as cuddly as a pissedoff porcupine, Washington comes off as warm and likeable. Some call it dignity, but dignity, Washington explains, is not something he packs along in his back pocket and surgically inserts into his characters. The dignity Washington exudes is simply an extension of his innate personality, he told rolling out TV. “I just bring myself to the role. I don’t know how to play dignified,” he says on the red carpet in Los Angeles, one week after the New York premiere. “I just bring myself to the role and try to bring the role to me.”
And Washington brings it like few ever have in Hollywood history. It’s this indefinable intangible that makes his screen presence so searing and his portrayals so believable. The evidence abounds in such characters as Herman Boone in the $100 million box-office smash, Remember the Titans. Or in his Academy Award-nominated performances as Malcolm X in the film of the same name, and Reuben Carter in Hurricane. Then there was his critically acclaimed role as Steven Biko in Cry Freedom.
Now there is the prize role of Frank Lucas in the American Gangster film that features enough award winners to stock a hardware store. In addition to Washington, the film’s stars include Russell Crowe (Oscar, Gladiator); Cuba Gooding Jr. (Oscar, Jerry Maguire); and Grammy-winning rapper Common. The film was produced by Brian Grazer (Oscar, Gladiator); directed by Ridley Scott (Oscar, Gladiator); and written by Steven Zaillian (Oscar, Schindler’s List). Grammy winner Jay-Z posted up on the motion picture’s soundtrack.
Since Training Day forever changed the perception of the good-guy-hero roles that Washington was known for, he has repeatedly stated that he’ll take any role that comes to him, as long as it’s good. Washington, whose trademark has been good guy roles, as in the highly acclaimed film Glory (for which he won his first Academy Award), and the much lauded The Pelican Brief, Remember the Titans, The Preacher’s Wife, Courage Under Fire and Philadelphia, is as apt to revel in deliciously wicked roles, like when he portrayed an unscrupulous cop in Training Day, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor. “I wasn’t hesitant at all [to play the outlaw Lucas]. A good story is a good story. Before Training Day, I hadn’t really been offered that kind of role,” he explains. “So, after Training Day, that was all I was offered. Not all, that’s not true, but then I was offered more [of] that kind of thing. It comes down to good material, great actors to work with and [a] great filmmaker.”