Roman J. Israel, Esq. - Film by Dan Gilroy, 2017
Some film critics have dwelled on the fact that the central figure of this film, an old-school civil rights attorney, was 'socially awkward." Israel's real problem is that he couldn't compromise with a corrupt criminal 'justice' system. Some called him a 'Rip Van Winkle" for suddenly having to go in public, leaving his legal brief writing behind, and having to deal with the modern neo-liberal prosecutors of the State. All this while having the values of a 1960s black activist, which keep him from being able to negotiate properly. Well yes. Actually, Israel had been fighting with these people for 35, years, so no 'sleep' existed. He knew them for what they were.
At his tiny civil rights law firm, he gets paid a pittance, wears a bulky suit and an Afro, and at night listens to Pharaoh Sanders jazz and looks at posters of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He only has a flip phone. He's like some kind of uncool Cornel West. Retro! He lives in an apartment walking distance from his former work (he does not have a car, in LA for god sakes), an apartment beset by gentrification construction. All that ends when his law partner dies. At a certain moment, he cracks, having deprived himself of love, a family, a larger income, some pleasures and anything but 'the struggle.' This caricature of a 1960s activist, while respecting him in the end, alienates the viewer in reality. Who wants to be an activist if you must live like a monk?
So the message is that having principles means you will ultimately crack, and go for the bacon sprinkled donuts and the surf off a swanky Santa Monica hotel. Israel says, "I'm tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful," and takes a reward that it is illegal for an attorney to collect. And also fatal to his health. He later backtracks, as he would, but it is too late.
At a certain point, a young black activist gives Israel a chance to speak to a group of young black people about the criminal justice system, but their cocky ignorance makes the meeting go downhill quickly. He ends up taking a job at a slick criminal-defense law firm just to make ends meet. Evidently Israel has never heard of unemployment insurance, as his panic leads him to this defense firm pretty quickly. On his own, he has prepared a massive U.S. District court class action that will attack the system of prosecutors railroading criminal defendants without trial. The prosecutors bludgeon the accused with extremely heavy sentences if they do not agree to a plea bargain. Many of his former clients have signed on as class plaintiffs. One young white lawyer at the upscale firm, who ultimately respects Israel in the end, amazingly enough files the civil claim against this racist practice, a practice which is prevalent today.
However, in reality, this federal lawsuit only exists in this movie, which is the real crime.
Denzel Washington plays Israel, and being one of the best actors in Hollywood, nails the part. Unfortunately Afro-American film is about the only film consistently political in the U.S., which tells you something about how sad the culture is. But what can we say about the larger picture of geezer leftists suddenly rising from the ashes of history - weird but more principled and tough than the conformists around them? It hints that black radicalism is back, and that young Afro-Americans are taking up the torch their old-school mothers and fathers once carried. The 'bulldog' has been passed. Young people are the future, but the past is never really past.
Prior book review of Angela Davis' "Are Prisons Obsolete?" Afro-American themed films reviewed below: "Selma," "Get Out," "Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom," "12 Years a Slave," "The Butler," "Red Hook Summer," "I Am Not Your Negro," "Free State of Jones." Use blog search box, upper left.
November 27, 2017