Race relations in Hollywood has always been a bit shaky. During a recent interview featured on Times Talk, Denzel Washington spoke about how several Hollywood execs offered him a racially disparaging role during his first years as a professional actor. Washington also spoke about how Sidney Poitier provided insight on how not to become pigeonholed as a black American stereotype.
“I got a part in a movie in 1986,” Washington said. “I call it ‘The N***a They Couldn’t Kill.’ He raped a white woman, they tried to electrocute him, and they tried to hang him. There were some Jewish people in the audition, and they said it would be funny if they tried to hang [my character], but they couldn’t. I said, ‘Like you bring some Jewish people in a room. They think it’s a shower, but it’s gas.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s not funny, right?’ To me, it wasn’t funny to put a rope around my neck either. So, I called Sidney Poitier and told him that they offered me $600,000 to play in this movie. He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do. But the first three or four films in this business will dictate how you are perceived.’ So, I turned that role down. Six months later, I got a call to do Cry Freedom and got an Oscar nomination. My career could’ve gone an entirely different way.”
Washington was able to move beyond detrimental film roles and become one of the greatest actors of all time. But until more blacks are able to establish financial power in Hollywood, black actors will continue to be offered less-than-favorable roles in show business. –amir shaw