Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Denzel Times Two

I just saw Denzel Washington's second directorial effort, "The Great Debaters". I've read a few reviews that take Denzel to task for not having more of a 'style' as a director. I contend that efficiency and clarity in storytelling carries substance over style.
This film, based on a historic Texas college of Black debaters in the 30s who debate and defeat Harvard University is a continuation of Washington's examination of Black life in America that manages to transcend the obvious racial component and illustrate the commonality of all Americans. Like "Antoine Fisher", Washington's first film as a director, "The Great Debaters" isn't hampered by the reality of Black life, instead it's enhanced by his vision and inclusive point of view.

Production values are top notch, the music a bit too obvious at times, but the opening juke joint sequence captures the energy, sex and danger of backwood parties in the south. Casting is where I believe Washington operates at a particularly high level. In "Antoine Fisher", Derek Luke made the most of his starring shot, and in "The Great Debaters", Washington enlists a cadre of outstanding young talent, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and especially Denzel Whitaker, are the heart of the film and it really beats.

It's also fun to watch the veterans Washington and Forrest Whitaker, share a couple of scenes. Stylistically different, but equally robust. Hopefully this won't be the last time these Oscar winners work together.

There are very few Black actors who have the clout to get movies made, let alone movies that aren't obvious popcorn events. To be clear, I'm not knocking those. I dug that Will Smith was able to make something like "I Am Legend", but also make "The Pursuit of Happyness". While Denzel will purport to make films that interest him and not necessarily 'Black' films, the proof is in the pudding and every time he can win with "Fisher" or "Debaters", the spectrum of Black life on film expands beyond "Soul Plane" and, well, you fill in the blank.

For whatever reason, I felt like watching another Denzel flick, so I browsed my library and pulled out the overlooked "Out of Time", directed by one of my favorite directors, Carl Franklin. Franklin also directed Washington, "Devil In A Blue Dress", from author Walter Mosely's best selling series of books featuring private detective Easy Rawlins.

Franklin is particularly adept at crime dramas and shades of gray. "Out of Time" stars Washington as a Floridian Chief of Police investigating the murder of a woman he was secretly seeing. This isn't "LA Confidential" or "Mystic River", but it's a solid, twisting, turning thriller with quite a bit of humor and Washington at his charismatic best. The cast is saucy too, with Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan starring as the two women in Denzel's life. If you haven't seen it, it's a good way to spend a couple of hours. If you have seen it before, it stands up to repeated viewings.

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