There are actors, and then there are chameleons. Never before in our contemporary times has there been a pillar of the entertainment industry like Denzel Washington. On the heels of the 25th anniversary of his astounding performance in Malcolm X, Washington has transformed himself into Roman J. Israel, Esq. Like the many many roles that have come before this one, Washington wraps himself in his character as if he’s wearing a second skin. His incredible performance as a man with a computer-brain and a determination to aid the helpless is what keeps Roman J. Israel, Esq. moving forward — even during the moments it seems to lean off track.
From the mind of writer/director, Dan Gilroy, Washington stands at the center of the legal drama as its titular character. In shoes that are two sizes too big (literally), an oversized blazer, and some haphazardly shaped bell bottoms, Roman is a fossil – a relic of the 1970’s locked away in a law office and dragged into the light when his partner, William Henry Jackson aka The Bulldog has a heart attack. In an instant, the man who has always stayed in the shadows becomes the face of the two-person firm. He also inadvertently captures the attention of hotshot attorney George Pierce (Collin Farrell) who is intrigued by Roman’s wealth of knowledge and encyclopedic brain.
Over the course of just three weeks, Roman’s life changes forever. A man who is obviously on the autistic spectrum and has never practiced in a courtroom, Roman finds himself both enraged at the greed and ignorance of others while simultaneously seduced by it. As he tries to find a place for himself at Pierce’s lush and massive law firm, Roman becomes enamored with Civil Rights attorney Maya Alston (play stellarly by Carman Ejogo). As Roman finds himself increasingly adrift from his beliefs, Maya — inspired by his legacy — desperately tries to hold on to the reigns of activism despite all that she’s had to sacrifice for it.
Gilroy is attempting to grapple with a lot here. At its core, Roman J. Isreal, Esq is a legal drama. However, it’s also trying to contend with twenty-first-century activism, our imbalanced judicial system, and it’s topped off with a layer of crime and intrigue. At times it does feel long and unwieldy with tons of details and tidbits that are only made interesting by the characters that serve them. However, the performances keep the film on track. With ‘80s- era headphones and a first generation iPod on his ears Washington becomes Roman, and without him, this would have undoubtedly been a very different film.
Roman’s connection with Maya is also interesting to note. Though the characters relationship is apparently not meant to be one of a romantic nature (despite Roman’s obvious infatuation with the Civil Right’s activist), the narrative didn’t entirely steer the audience away from that notion. Ejogo is wonderful as a woman struggling with the realities of the world while going against the grain of society. She finds a kindred spirit in Roman just as his life begins to shift in a different direction. Perhaps an even more compelling story would have centered around Maya, and I found myself wishing desperately that she had more screen time.
If Gilroy intended to make a film with realistic characters, who are just as flawed and nuanced as everyday folks with a dope soundtrack, then that’s what he accomplished here. And yet, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film that would have never worked without the brilliance that is Washington. He is magnetic and able to wield a certain elegance into moments of humor and despair. Roman J. Isreal, Esq. isn’t just a narrative about how three weeks can dramatically change your life, it’s a tale about the things we tell ourselves and how desire and excess can seduce even the most humble among us. As Roman eloquently states in the film, “Purity can’t survive in this world.”
Roman J. Israel, Esq. debuts in theaters Nov. 22.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami