Denzel Washington, Man on a Mission - By Jan Janssen
Denzel Washington is a man with a deep sense of mission in life. It extends to his family, his movie career, and most importantly, to his faith in God. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, Washington has long been driven by an abiding belief that we are summoned to bring greater good to the world.
“We all have a spiritual nature and I don’t think we should deny that – we should embrace it,” says Washington. “I am trying to suggest that there is a higher calling to life and you can interpret that any way you want. My belief is that we are all born with a purpose to bring something good to the world and not just think in terms of our narrow self-interest.
“I have faith that we have a greater purpose in life and that is what inspires us to be good men and women and it’s up to us to take responsibility for living up to a higher morality than simply whatever base instincts move us. ”That powerful spiritual message regularly finds expression in the characters the 63-year-old Washington has inhabited in the course of his storied Hollywood career. Last year’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. saw him take on the title role of a man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome who serves as a legal missionary waging a tireless fight in the corridors of a deeply flawed judicial system. In the course of the film, Israel is given to biblical-like sacrifices of money, personal relationships, and his reputation while staying true to his ideals. “He has an Old Testament-like faith in the law,” is how Washington describes the character.
Dan Gilroy, the film’s director and writer, invested Israel with Christ-like qualities and it’s hardly surprising that he wrote the part specifically for Washington. “Denzel brings dedication and truth to his work and in this case [his character] is working towards a better humanity – he’s an absolute hero.”
Not only did Washington earn his eighth Oscar nomination for his performance – he won for Training Day in 2002– but Roman J. Israel, Esq. was yet another powerful example of how he relishes the chance to embrace characters whose moral ardour and Christian values match his own unshakeable faith. In an age of trash culture and the voracious spell of social media, Denzel is steadfast in his determination to use his celebrity pulpit to preach higher virtues the masses.
Says Washington: “I speak now and I’m doing what God told me to do from the beginning. It was prophesied that I would travel the world and preach to millions of people. It was prophesied when I was 20. I thought it was through my work and it has been.”
He adds: “When I was 59 my mother said to me, ‘Denzel, you do a lot of good. You have to do good the right way and you know what I’m talking about.’ I don’t drink any more, I don’t do any of those things. I’m all about the message, to the degree that I know it, and I’m unashamed and unafraid to share it.” One of his messages to young people today, especially those finding themselves increasingly obsessed with their Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts, is a simple one: “Turn it off.”
“It’s hard for young people now. They’re hooked, they’re addicted. If you don’t think you’re addicted ... then see if you can turn it off for a week,“ says Washington.
“It’s a tool, so we should use it. God has blessed us with free will, now, it’s free will magnified, free will on steroids. You’re free to go in any direction you want. It’s not the enemy, it’s just a reflection of our own free will.”
Washington believes that the current social media feeding frenzy is the result of a desire for acceptance and wanting to be liked:
“We used to do anything to be liked, but it was [to be liked] by the person in front of you. Now it’s to be liked by 16 million people that you don’t know. We have to ask ourselves what is the long-term effect, if not the short-term effect, of too much information.”
This kind of reflection is consistent with Washington’s willingness to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a Christian messenger in his own right. Young Denzel often spent long hours listening to his father’s sermons to the point where “going to church felt like a job” and he “rejected” any notion of becoming a pastor himself.
“For a time, it sent me in another direction,” admits Washington. “That can be a pattern for a preacher’s son. I had to go to church, so it wasn’t fun. I didn’t know anything different. Being a minister’s son, having grown up in the church and learned the cadence, it was probably easier to play that part. I had some idea of different rhythms ... but I needed spend time working things out on my own.”
After his parents divorced when he was 14, his mother sent him to a private school where he became serious about his academic studies, and which also helped him avoid the fate of three of his closest friends who wound up serving decades in prison.
Denzel then attended Fordham University where he went through pre-med, pre-law and political science studies before being kicked out for low grades while spending most of his time partying rather than studying. Recalls Washington:
“Acting was my calling. The year I started acting there was a woman in my mother’s beauty shop, who kept looking at me in the mirror. Finally she got a piece of paper and wrote ‘prophecy’ at the top. She said: ‘You are going to travel the world and preach to millions of people.’ Now, bear in mind that I’d just been kicked out of school. I said: ‘You see anything there about me being let back into school?’ That was in March 1975 and in September 1975 I started acting. I still got that piece of paper, too.”
He started out as an aspiring theatre actor in New York and knew from the first time he set foot on stage that that was how he saw his professional life unfolding. He had no inkling that he was destined for major stardom, however.
“I started in the theatre and I was hoping that one day I’d make 650 bucks a week on Broadway. That’s not to say I didn’t want to do movies. I started acting in 1975, so the films I was seeing and liking starred [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino and [Dustin] Hoffman. I didn’t know anything about Hollywood, I just knew that these were good actors telling these great stories. Meanwhile, I was doing [Eugene] O’Neill and Shakespeare, so I was looking at them and thinking, ‘I’d like to be in a movie like that.’ But I never said, ‘I want to have a movie career.’”
He earned his big break as actor in 1982 when he landed the role of Dr Phillip Chandler on the hit NBC TV series, St. Elsewhere. Audiences were drawn to his handsome and charismatic persona and it was his stepping stone to Hollywood.
“I didn’t consider it a big break – though I’m sure my agent did [laughs]. I remember [producer] Bruce Paltrow [late father of actress Gwyneth Paltrow] – God rest his soul – and at the end of every season, I’d ask him, ‘Should I rent or should I buy?’ And he’d say, ‘Keep renting.’”
"We were never a ratings hit, we were a critical hit. But oftentimes you don’t know what your big break is at the time.”
His TV stardom coincided with his meeting the love of his life in actress Pauletta Pearson, whom he married in 1983. They’ve been together ever since – which surely must qualify Denzel for Hollywood sainthood – and have raised four children together, David, 34 Katia, 30, and 27-year-old twins Malcolm and Olivia.
Denzel credits his wife with having given him the requisite emotional and practical support so that he could take off for months at a time in pursuit of a burgeoning film career without ever worrying that “things would fall apart” at home.
“Pauletta is a magnificent woman,” says Washington. “She’s kept me grounded and working hard and kept me in life. She’s worked hard to look after our children all these years when I’ve often been away for three or four months at a time pursuing my career. She’s never complained once about that and given me the freedom to be able to work as often as I’ve worked – as long as I come home and do my chores. “It’s been my spiritual obligation to take out the garbage and do the dishes and spend time with the children [while they were growing up] or Pauletta [would] make me face hell. If I ever, for one moment, play the big move star, Pauletta doesn’t need God to put me back in my place. She can kick my butt very nicely without any divine assistance.” [laughs] Over the years, Washington has established himself as one of the most respected and most talented actors in the business. He’s appeared in one classic film after another including Cry Freedom (as South African political activist Steve Biko), Malcolm X, Philadelphia, The Pelican Brief, Training Day, Man on Fire, The Hurricane, The Equalizer, and The Magnificent Seven.
This summer he gets to return to his role as Robert McCall, the righteous vigilante who once again delivers the world from evil in The Equalizer 2. It’s fairly rare that Washington – despite his shattering portrayal of a violent, corrupt cop in Training Day – plays villains or violent men, but he feels an affinity towards McCall’s sense of justice and desire to atone for his violent past.
“I’m not necessarily drawn to violent characters but I understood this man’s dedication and resolve,” Washington explains. “He wants to live a quiet life but circumstances intervene and he can’t back down. He lives by a personal code of honour and he’s not someone you ever want to cross, to put it mildly. “He wants to do the right thing, basically. He’s promised his wife, who’s dead, that he wouldn’t go back to being the kind of violent man he was before but he feels compelled to use violence again in order to defend people ... Even though he suffers from insomnia and OCD and isn’t a very happy man, he finds a renewed purpose in life by defending people and that brings him out of his very isolated existence. But he’s a long way from healing himself.”
Atonement, healing, defending the oppressed, these could all be themes for one of his late father’s sermons. Denzel admits to still having vivid memories of those fire and brimstone oratories and has lately taken to openly embracing his faith and espousing Christian principles at various public occasions such as the college commencement address he gave at Dillard University in 2015 or at the Church of God in Christ’s annual ‘We Care’ Charities Banquet in St Louis, Missouri in 2016.
Up on stage, he vowed that he would become more actively involved “in getting up and speaking about what God has done” for him. “Give thanks for blessings every day. Every day. Embrace gratitude. Encourage others. It is impossible to be grateful and hateful at the same time.”
In the same address, he quoted a prayer that he is fond of reciting: “I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed at night, so that when you wake in the morning you have to start on your knees to find them. And while you’re down there, say ‘thank you’.” The last time Washington had engaged in sermonising was when he played Malcolm X, the famous black civil rights leader. Getting up on stage might seem natural for a seasoned actor, but Denzel is quick to caution that preaching the Word of God requires a different set of skills.
“[Preaching] is not performance-based if you mean what you say. And you better mean what you say. My father did. He believed it with every fibre of his being. He was a man of God and we share that. For him, the pulpit was wherever he was. My father was a minister and my mother owned a beauty shop. So that seems like perfect breeding ground for an actor. That covers a lot.”
He adds: “I remember some years ago asking my pastor: ‘Do you think I’m supposed to be a preacher?’ And he said: ‘Well, you are. You have a pulpit of your own.’ That’s not to say that I’m preaching, necessarily. I don’t want to tell you what you need to do. I mean, I’m not turning it up to ten when it comes to being correct, I’m not that guy, I like my wine.”
Even though they were often estranged from each other, Washington still draws inspiration from his preacher father:
“My father was the greatest personal inspiration of my life. I draw strength from his memory and his unshakeable belief in the power of all us to achieve something positive and beneficial and wonderful in life. Whenever I’m down or feeling sorry for myself, I take great solace in my father’s faith and spiritual strength. He was a rock. Just like my wife, Pauletta. I could never have achieved what I’ve been able to accomplish as an actor without her love and support behind me.”
Had he not chosen acting as his life’s calling, could Denzel have seen himself looking after his own flock of churchgoers the way his dad did?
“I don’t know if I could have been as committed and dedicated to the Church like he was,” Washington muses. “But I do think I possess an inspirational streak in me like he had. I know I have the desire and impulse to want to encourage people. Make people become better. Lift them up when they’re down or gone down the wrong path in life. I believe we can all help each other if we want to. I wouldn’t want to go through life saying I didn’t help.”