Arts movie review

‘Not speaking up is ordinary’

Denzel Washington reflects the struggles of the unusual and extraordinary as an idealistic civil rights defense attorney

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Denzel Washington stars in 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.


Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Written and Directed By Dan Gilroy
Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
Nov. 20, 2017
Rated PG-13 (USA), Now Playing

Sold as a legal thriller, this movie is actually a moral-drama and a character study. Denzel Washington, known for his badass roles in blockbuster movies, plays the socially awkward, clumsy, idealistic character of Roman J. Israel, who is dedicated to leading a life of resistance, fighting for the civil rights of the weak, the downtrodden and the impoverished. Out of sync with his own time, Roman appears in oversized 1970s suits and headphones, large, black-rimmed, far-sight glasses and an old suitcase, while sporting a serious afro. The movie actually takes place in modern times, which is nicely  presented by Colin Farrell in the role of George Pierce. Being an outcast with savant abilities (he knows the legal code by heart) and some evidence of being on the Aspergers spectrum, Israel had found himself a niche: working with civil rights attorney William Jackson in a small law firm. Upon losing his position, Roman struggles with his awkwardness getting in the way of his passionate ambitions to fight for a good cause. He finally finds his morals and principles challenged as he gets beaten down by a tumultuous series of events: “I am tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”

This movie would not have been realized had Denzel Washington not agreed to play the role. Dan Gilroy, also director of Nightcrawler, wrote the script with specifically Denzel Washington in mind to play Israel. Together, they developed the role of Roman J. Israel, who comes across as so alive and believable on screen that viewers will have a hard time trusting their search engine results: Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not based on a true story. No real-life references exist.

The movie is carried by strong acting performances by Washington, Farrell and not to mention Ejogo. The artistic grip of transforming Israel into a 1970s character who lives in present times cunningly confers the conflict between preserving one's own convictions and individuality, while feeling the pressure to adapt to a modern society that does not seem to care enough for the social injustices that it lives in. Although this movie may not be a perfectly rounded masterpiece, as some elements and scenes may leave the viewer slightly irritated, it is a thoughtful contemplation on the quiet struggle for change, an advocacy for humanity, and a compassionate spotlight onto those who fall out of the mainstream.