The Manhood Series: The Other Denzel Principle

Jose Vilson Jose

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Manhood is one of those topics in the Black community that’s often discussed but rarely put in context. Consider the following: Denzel Washington, whose street credibility and Hollywood status is never questioned, has evolved into an actor whose mentioned in the same sentence as Al Pacino and Robert Deniro, and without the word “not” in the middle. Like those actors, their catalogues are versatile and profound, to the point where they’ve almost become caricatures of themselves.

It’s with that thought that I watched Fences a few months ago, an August Wilson play set in the 1950s, a revival of a play that featured James Earl Jones in the lead. I saw Denzel sway from loving family man to stern father, swig-stealing garbage man to conflicted womanizer. The whole play, well-written and acted, pushed the Black men and women in the audience to confront a man who in Act 1 has a charismatic and fluid edifice but by Act 2 has a deep dark secret and a battle with himself that many in the community sympathize (and empathize) with. Those suppressed secrets that simultaneously mollify and rot the image of the Black man hammered at the foreheads of those of us in the audience.

The same guy who, in the beginning of the play, gave a soaring speech to his son about responsibility (“A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, sleep your behind in my bedclothes, fill your belly with my food because you my son. You my flesh and blood, not ’cause I like you!”) couldn’t stop from cavorting with another woman. The audience had to know that he wasn’t perfect, but we still applauded the callousness and “tough love” to his sons, even when it came from the same lack of emotions he showed when making other riskier decisions.

That guttural fatalism, handed down to him from his father, rings so true to the many of us who’ve grown up even without one. We either emulate our fathers, whether we like it or not, or we run as far away from him, whether we like it or not. The varying degrees of these dichotomies exist, and Denzel, the actor and the person, embody so much of that debate that I sat in awe during intermission. The same man who played Malcolm X and Alonzo Harris, who gives tons to his community and has had alleged marital issues, the same man who the hood and the boulevard loves, are embodied in the same person. Impeccable and respected by all, even when we forgive his not-so-secret life.

Maybe that’s why he’s the first person one thinks of when anyone mentions “Black man.” Even this obelisk of manhood has a little dirt on his otherwise sturdy shoulder. It also may be why we love him.

Jose, who had to fill in the wedges in this topic …