Playing out in the hardhearted world of the Los Angeles criminal court system that was sorely lacking in moral convictions, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a uniquely told story now in theaters and starring Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington. Roman J. Israel, Esq., is a character whose “moral compass always points north,” says producer, Todd Black. “When you go to a courthouse or a prison, you see people struggling to prove their worth, to prove their story – not even necessarily their innocence; they just want their story to be heard,” says Black. Of many lawyers, he says, “They’re cut and dry – does it fit the law or doesn’t it fit the law? – and they put zero moral value on right or wrong.”
“Denzel has played a lot of morally corrupt people and a lot of morally right people, but this character is like no one he’s ever played before,” says Black. As Roman J. Israel, Esq, Washington performs an idealistic, misfit, savant defense lawyer, Roman J. Israel, who is driven by conviction, courage, and compassion. The Esq. attached to his name refers to his being “a little above gentleman” and “a little lower than knight.”
Roman’s life is upended when his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. Israel is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who is initially an ambitious and self-serving lawyer. Roman Israel is also pursued as a mentor by Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), who is a young champion of equal rights. Carmen Ejogo says that Roman ignites the embers in her character and that her character stands on his shoulders. A turbulent series of events tests Roman’s career and convictions, as well as of those around him.
In Roman J. Israel, Esq., writer-director Dan Gilroy works with two-time Academy Award® winner Denzel Washington to present a portrait of a layered, complex man whose life has been spent fighting for others’ civil rights and paid a price for his activism. “For Roman, the world is a war-zone and he’s never left the front lines. It’s a blessing and a burden,” he says. “Activism can take an enormous emotional toll, but on the other side of the balance is the knowledge that you’re becoming the change you want to see in the world – that you’re making the world a better place. That’s one of the key elements of the film: the importance of believing in something and the burden that often comes with that belief.”
Dan Gilroy wrote the film on spec specifically for Washington because he felt that Denzel is the only actor who could bring the character to life. “I wrote this movie for Denzel because of his talent and because Denzel is a man who believes in human dignity and the human spirit. Knowing who Denzel is in real life, he brings that part of himself to this character.”
Sonoma Christian Home’s (SCH) Dr. Diane Howard joined a small group of top journalists who write about redemptive movies to interview Dan Gilroy (DG) and Denzel Washington (DW) in L.A. Together they had a profound discussion about the movie as they (JG, journalist group) interviewed Dan and Denzel:
SCH: How is Roman Israel a role model?
DG: He is overlooked, diminished; but is a hero. He inspires people, lifts them up. He is selflessly working toward a better humanity, a better good.
JG: Is Roman Israel a type of Christ figure?
DG: Definitely, that was essential.
JG: Is Roman Israel an unstable hero?
DG: Roman is in conflict with himself, with his conscience. He has a spiritual conflict and crisis. The law is a religion to a degree and he loses his faith in it. Roman breaks and works to get back to redemption. Roman has to transcend an earthly court.
DW: Roman is the second or third leg of the race.
SCH: How do you want this movie to impact and affect our culture?
DG: It will inspire that although a body dies, the spirit doesn’t.
JG: Did you wear prosthetics for this role?
DW: No, I put on thirty pounds (and took it off again).
Hear excerpts from this roundtable discussion.
One of the most profound insights from this discussion was that the movie is not just about Roman. The idea of one’s legacy is gripping in this movie.
Dan Gilroy is well-known for Hollywood spectacles like The Bourne Legacy. Gilroy says, “I can write spectacle-driven, entertaining films, but what I learned…is that audiences love to watch something character-based…Audiences are hungry for a story that resonates in real life, that’s relevant.”
Roman Israel is a character who continually challenges what he sees as a rigged system. “Roman’s spent 40 years in a back room, fighting for the dispossessed and under-represented,” Gilroy explains. “It’s been his all-consuming passion.”
Gilroy heavily researched the legal profession, in particular civil rights and activist attorneys. He found an overburdened justice system in which the housing of inmates has been privatized and monetized, and one which disproportionately affects African-Americans. “The criminal courts and prisons are wildly out of balance and greatly in need of reform,” he says.
Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” is about an idealistic defense attorney (Washington) whose deeply-held beliefs are shaken when an unexpected series of events challenge his passion for helping the poor and disenfranchised. He is a role model and even a type of Christ figure in many ways, but he has flaws. “He is inexperienced in how to convey his knowledge and goes too far – he gets himself in trouble,” says Washington… The film is full of biblical themes, including sacrifice, (Roman gives up family, fortune, and reputation for the sake of a cause he firmly believes in), honor, and faith in the unseen.
Although Roman has dedicated his life to public service, he’s uncomfortable being in public. He is awkward in his walk and the way he speaks. “He has no filter,” says producer Jennifer Fox. “No ability to compromise. He’s going to tell you the truth – the ugly truth – and you may not want to hear it. He’s so idealistic, so pure, so morally forthright that he has no patience for people who do not see justice his way, and can’t negotiate at all. He ends up hurting the very people he’s fighting to protect.”
With the loss of William Henry Jackson, a leading legal activist, civil rights icon, and Roman’s boss, Roman begins a crisis of conscience that leads to a loss of faith in everything he’s held important until now; but after a tragic mistake, he finds that faith again. “There’s a reason that the first and last lines of the movie are the same,” says Fox. “Roman makes a complete arc in this film – a fall from grace, and a return to faith.”
Like Roman Israel, Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington are men of strong convictions. Denzel revealed that while shooting Roman J. Israel, Esq. that he and Dan prayed and read the Bible regularly. “Dan and I have been prayer partners in this whole collaboration…We were on the same page from day one. We know Who we work for, and we’re just trying to do our best work,” he said.
Denzel Washington reads his Bible every morning and chooses roles that he can “bend” in the direction of a positive message or a reflection of his deep personal faith. “Do more for others than you would do for yourself” is a message Washington was surrounded by as a boy. “We prayed about everything, every day,” Washington has said. “And we always ended with ‘Amen. God is love.’ I thought ‘God is love’ was one word. It took me a long time to learn what that meant. I don’t care what book you read or what you believe—if you don’t have love, if you don’t love your fellow man, then you don’t have anything.”
Washington believes that he has been placed in a unique position and feels compelled to make the most of it, sharing positive messages however he can through his acting. He always signs autographs with “God bless.”
“I speak now and I’m doing what God told me to do from the beginning,” Washington has said. “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.”
“My mother said to me when I was 59, she said, ‘Denzel, you do a lot of good. You have to do good the right way and you know what I’m talking about,'” Washington continued. “I don’t drink anymore, 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!”
In today’s information age, Washington said it’s easy to lose sight of one’s convictions, as we are constantly bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information. “I was reading about this today in my prayer and meditation – it is so difficult to trust that Jesus died for our sins because the mind never shuts off, especially in this world,” he said. “We know, we know, we know, but we forget, moment by moment.”
Washington urged young people today to ask themselves: “What is the long, if not short-term effect of too much information…It’s accelerated now, it’s on steroids, it’s moving so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up…What happens to the part of the brain that figures things out? We better understand that we are addicted to this (as he held up a smart phone). “It’s not its fault, it’s a magnification and a reflection of our own free will.”
Like Roman, Washington has strong convictions and urged millennials to hold fast to their convictions and share the truth of the gospel with a watching world — no matter how unpopular.
“I pray for your generation,” he said. “What an opportunity you have! Don’t be depressed by it because we have to go through this, we’re here now. You can’t put that thing back in the box.”
He added, “I would say to your generation – find a way to work together because this is a very divisive, angry time you’re living in, unfortunately, because we didn’t grow up like that.”
Washington referred to Daniel chapter 10 from the Bible, saying, “‘God puts leaders in place for a reason and a season…There’s a reason, you may not like what’s going on but the boss has a reason,” Washington said, pointing heavenward.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. comes to theaters in wide release Nov. 22. For more information, visit Roman Israel movie.
To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard