The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Ariel Schudson takes a close look at two of the Oscar-nominated Flight star's films with Spike Lee: Mo' Better Blues and He Got Game.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Over the last 85 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have recognized a great deal of men and women in the film industry for their dramatic talent and skill. It is no secret, however, that there has been a significant lack of ethnic diversity in these selections. While much of this stems from the fact that Hollywood has not always been the town that plays well with others when it comes to this, there have been a few notable exceptions. Actor Denzel Washington has managed to create a strong space for men of color in modern American cinema. As of this year’s nomination for his role in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight (2012), Washington holds the record for the most Oscar nominations held by an African-American actor, just beating out Morgan Freeman.

While there have certainly been other men who paved the way for Denzel, and there are many who have developed powerful careers since, Washington’s acting choices and professional approach reflect a man whose approach is as aware of its power for future actors of color as it is for his own future possibilities. Never going in for stereotypes and preferring to take roles that would elevate or challenge him, Denzel Washington’s resume may not be as selective as Daniel Day-Lewis’s, but it still represents a decent list of films that do not undermine or demoralize him as an actor or man of color. Every film on there is a film chosen for its strength of character and the story, not simply for a paycheck or because it was all he could get.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

For this week’s Myth of Macho I would like to look at 6-time Academy Award nominee Denzel Washington. In particular, I am interested in his work with Spike Lee. While the Spike Lee world centers on masculinity as a major themes and I see The Myth of Macho returning here at some later date, the work he has done with Denzel is well worth discussing now since Denzel is getting so much attention for Flight. Our study of Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990) and He Got Game (Spike Lee, 1998) will exhibit some of the finer examples of how the two men work together filmically to explore ideas of masculinity and ethnic identity. Both Mo’ Better and He Got Game are films that present highly talented men excelling in their given fields of jazz musicianship (MBB) and basketball (HGG). On a historic and cultural level, both of these career choices have served as locations of triumph for African-American men. The importance of these two films is that they examine the social relationships that develop in and around these worlds in a more complex manner. MBB and HGG study the tricky balancing act that success, relationships and masculine development have in a world that intentionally cuts them down at every turn.

Mo’ Better Blues chronicles the life and relationships of a young jazz musician named Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington). While he tries to keep his romantic and artistic lives afloat, he discovers that the various qualities required to do this are ones that perhaps he does not possess. The people in his life (his band members, the women he is seeing, etc.) are none too pleased with that fact. This film traces the ways in which Bleek comes to terms with this realization and the events that force him to do so.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Bleek is involved with two women: Clarke and Indigo. Indigo is a centered, down-to-earth teacher, wanting little to do with her man’s life at the club at night, while Clarke is a sexy jazz singer who needles Bleek about actually joining his band. The women know about each other, but they do not like it. These women represent two different sides of Bleek: the healthy side that is able to deal with adult solutions in an adult world (Indigo), and the dangerous but sexy individualist, stuck in adolescent fantasy, thirsty for attention, loving the admiration and always stubbornly wedged in his own private sphere (Clarke).

In one of the love scenes with Clarke, Bleek uses his trumpet as though it was an extension of his own physical self, undressing her and investigate her body, shortly after they ratify that what they do is not "make love" but engage in "mo’ better." According to Bleek, “mo’ better makes it mo’ better.” While this may seem like a slightly heavy-handed way to analogize Bleek’s musicianship with his masculinity, it goes further than the simplicity of his instrument representing his… instrument. His inability to touch Clarke with his hands, his use of the trumpet as a separational tool only shows his fear of intimacy. He thinks that if he lets go of the trumpet, the “secret of his success” and the key to his masculinity, he will lose everything. It’s almost a Samson and Delilah issue: he’s afraid that by letting the women in his life in even a little (Indigo or Clarke), he’ll lose his power, they will, in a sense, cut his hair and remove his masculine identity.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Bleek’s relationship with his band and with the club that he works at is also one of some issue. The quintet is managed by a childhood friend of Bleek’s, Giant (Spike Lee), who has loyalties to Bleek but perhaps not as many as to the rest of the band or to his own gambling difficulties. The band makes it very clear to Bleek that they see Giant as a problem and that their treatment by the club is just as bad. While they know that it is Bleek’s talent bringing in the crowds and getting them the gigs, they are also part of the band and do not simply want to be known as a subsidiary of “The Bleek Gilliam Quintet.” They insist that Bleek go to the club owners and ask for a raise, which he does. The club owners’ response? A flat-out rejection of the request, an incensed response, and a flurry of accusatory language directed at Bleek and the others’ attempts to try to steal from the club and club-owners simply by asking for more money. Incidentally, it was the portrayal of the club owners, Josh and Moe Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro) that caused much of the controversy from the film.   

Putting aside the portrayal of the Flatbush brothers for the sake of this discussion, the idea that the band had “capped out” at this level because of powerful, monied club-owners and poor management was something that Bleek had to take back to his bandmates and face himself. Not only did this mean that Giant, his friend, had done him (and his bandmates) wrong by agreeing to a poor deal with the Flatbush brothers, but this also meant that his success in the one thing that he really cared about, more than the women, more than his relationships in the band, more than anything… could only go so far. In a sense, Bleek was playing jazz music, the music that had been born out of slavery, racism and oppression and was being kept on as an indentured servant in the club he had considered to be the place that he could freely express himself as an artist.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

In Mo Better Blues, Spike Lee's depiction of the African-American woman as a  "queen" or "savior" is as problematic as it is intended to be constructive. The problem in this situation is that within MBB, it is not from the context of or for the good of a woman but of and for a man. The band disparages Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito) in the dressing room for having a “white girlfriend” and “disrespecting the dressing room” by bringing her inside. They then start throwing pin-up magazine pictures of mostly naked or bikini-clad African-American women at him, talking back and forth about how beautiful and sexy those women are and that they are “black queens,” while Lacey sits in the chair defending his girlfriend, simply stating, “You’re ignorant black men.” Lacey’s bandmates are unable to extract themselves from the same condition that Bleek lives with: sexuality and ethnicity comingle with the desire for masculine identification (especially career-wise) and yet intimacy is lacking. These men are throwing pictures of women that they are objectifying at a man who sincerely worships his lady. Yet they are calling the objectified women “queens.” Oh dear.  

Things aren’t much different for Bleek. The figure of Indigo ends up being a representation of his mother and her stability, since everything else ends up going terribly wrong in his world. He runs to her, asking her to, essentially, be his savior and “save his life.” She fights him off at first but finally caves. But this “saving grace moment” is bittersweet. Everything has been taken from his at this juncture: he has no ability: he can no longer play the trumpet, he can no longer be the “hot shot” guy on stage, and his dreams are shattered due to recent occurrences at the club. He asks her to "give me a son" because he knows that is the only way that he can keep on playing music and, as he says in the beginning of the film, music is the only thing he cares about. And yet, when he child arrives, he makes sure that he raises him slightly different than he was raised: when the identical scene from the beginning of the film plays out, he allows the child to go out to play, giving him more freedom than he had himself, perhaps allowing the boy a better opportunity at socialization. While this finale has some “bleakness” to it, perhaps not all is lost.

He Got Game comes from a different place. This excellent film has gotten overlooked and tragically forgotten about in the last few years. Whether you are a basketball fan or not, there is a great deal in here to be looked at and not just the incredible Coney Island footage or wonderfully young Rosario Dawson and Milla Jovovich. It could be argued that He Got Game and Boyz n the Hood travel along the same path, both films discussing issues of color and criminality, father/son relationships and the desire to move past the literal or figurative prison walls of your living environment. However, He Got Game injects basketball culture and (as per usual in a Spike Lee Joint) the landscape of Brooklyn, New York.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Sports culture is, generally speaking, a highly male-centric area of discussion. However, HGG presents it in such a way that it has just as much familial meaning as it is a reflection on masculinity.  Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is the father of an extremely skilled high-school basketball player named Jesus (Ray Allen) who is being pursued by every college with the promise of a full scholarship and assorted other goodies. He’s a proud father. Who wouldn’t be? One small problem: Jake is in jail for accidentally killing his children’s mother during an argument when Jesus was 12 years old. The governor is very keen on basketball and Jesus Shuttlesworth, in particular. Wanting to see Jesus attend his Alma Mater, he allows Jake to leave the prison for one week in order to make amends with his son and get Jesus to sign with Big State. When Jake gets back to Coney Island and meets up with his son and daughter again, he finds this to be even more difficult than he had originally imagined.

As far as Denzel was concerned, this was a very choice part. So much so that he cut his fees in order to ensure that the film got made. As Joe Valdez notes, this film opened at number one in the box office on more screens than any other Spike Lee film had ever been on, up until that point. Not only was basketball a hot subject, but the idea of pairing up Denzel Washington and a real basketball player with a genuine story that examined some actual realities within this world seemed to be of interest to the film-viewing populace. And they were not wrong. The film’s structure is unusual and still powerful. The beautiful opening montage of the basketball players may be one of the more visually stunning things to ever be committed to a sports film and the manner in which the sports figures are involved is not only original but adds great character and substance to Jesus’ story and the amount of stress that he is under, being lauded as the “greatest high school basketball player in the country.”

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

We find ourselves to be voyeurs, at times, watching Jesus and Jake watch or do the same things within the film, clearly meant to show their “oneness” and align them as father and son. The camera shows them playing basketball at the same time, or watching TV at the same time, identically posed and reacting in very similar manners. The most heartbreaking aspect of these scenes comes when Jesus, who has rejected his father’s appeals, is sitting there, watching the same television program about himself and cannot hear his father’s positive responses. While Jesus sits there silently, his father is on the other side of town, responding to the television show with pride, approving of the words that Jesus has said about his mother, beaming. Jesus, convinced that his mother’s death was part of the terrible behavior that his father had been visiting upon him as an adolescent, would not accept Jake as anything but the negative man that he has built him up to be all these years.  

The film relies upon a flashback structure to present the masculinity struggles of both Jake and Jesus. For Jesus, his entire world changed at 12 years old when his father accidentally killed his mother and was sent to Attica. Jesus’ flashbacks involve letters written to him by his mother and primarily maternal memories. He makes the conscious attempt to center his masculine development only upon the things that she told him, and rejects anything that Jake had said. But Jake was the one who taught him how to play basketball, creating his dreams and his passions and pushing him to succeed. While Jesus refuses to admit it, his flashbacks wander from the letters that his mother writes to some of the “training sessions” and dinners with his father’s proud words, showcasing the positive experiences that Jesus remembers as part of his young development.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Jake’s flashback sequences are a little more unsettling. Where Jesus’ memories move towards a healing with his father, Jake’s flashback sequences seem to be tied to the primal feelings that he has grown used to since being in prison. As he listens to the hooker and her client have sex next door, Jake bounces his basketball off the wall in rhythm to their pounding. As it grows more insistent, his mind wanders to the awful night his wife died, and how he pushed his boy too hard, which ended in him literally pushing his wife to her death. There seems to be a connection for him between love, sex and death that he cannot move away from.

Jake’s masculinity is centered in a very basic and relentless kind of anger that is shown in the death night flash back and then towards the end when it is clear that his frustrations at his situations have gotten to him. Much like the death night scene, alcohol is involved and physical activity, as well as sex. Jake starts drinking, gets some money from the “parole officers” who are watching him, and attempts to visit Dakota (Milla Jovovich), the prostitute from next door. But the experience shows him that this way of doing things, this way of the past, no longer works. He has to find a new way of being a man and that means letting all of the anger, pain and unhealthy mentalities that he was raised with go.

The Myth of Macho: Denzel Washington

Jesus comes to the same conclusion, but only after a final face-off with his father. While he finally realizes that Jake may have pushed him too hard, he also wanted the best for him, without expecting anything in return. This realization was the big one. Everyone else in Jesus’ life wanted “a piece of Jesus.” The final one-on-one game was what sealed it. While several quips are passed back and forth between the two men about what Jake had taught Jesus and what Jesus had learned, Jake finally says to Jesus, “Let me tell you something. You look out for yourself. You look out for your sister. You ain’t gotta worry about me no more. But you get that hatred outta your heart, boy. Or you’re gonna end up just another n***a like your father. It’s your ball.”

HGG and MBB both deal in memory and masculine values. They also deal in career paths that can eat their way through personal relationships. Both characters that Denzel Washington plays in these films grapple with different aspects of their masculinity. For Bleek Gilliam, it relates primarily to his career and relationship with women. For Jake Shuttlesworth, it has to do with his role as a father and his unresolved anger issues resulting from prison and being raised in the projects. As he continually says to Jesus as a child, getting out of the projects is why he pushes him so hard on the court. These are complex visions of men of color within modern society and powerful portrayals of non-stereotypical career challenges within a cinematic world that rarely shows either. Washington’s choices here reflect an actor who is keenly aware of his own celebrity and strength as a media figure, using it wisely.

Thanks for joining us once again on the courts of The Myth of Macho! See you again next week! Until then, remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.