Eye on Hollywood: The Race Films of Denzel Washington: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Last fall, in my capacity as a frequent contributor to this website’s print companion, The Occidental Quarterly, I addressed a crowd of citizens concerned with the well-being of Europeans and European Americans. My presentation had the long title of “Cultural Displacement and the Jewish Experience: The Entertainment Industry as a Case Study.” Perhaps fitting in a world moving away from the printed word, I had about twenty minutes of film clips to hold the attention of the audience.

My focus was on two films, Crimson Tide (1995) and Remember the Titans (2000), both starring African-American actor Denzel Washington. Washington has appeared in over a dozen films that prominently feature a racial angle. His first big-screen appearance, Cry Freedom (1987), set the stage for his anointed celluloid calling: addressing race problems in the way Hollywood wants America to think about race. In Cry Freedom Washington played Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who died at a police station in South Africa. Two years later he appeared in Glory as an escaped slave who joined the Northern army during the Civil War.

Mississippi Masala (1991) was an innovative look at interracial romance (good) and hostility to interracial romance (bad) as seen through lenses of white, black (African American) and brown (immigrants from India). This was immediately followed by Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), which was mirrored in some respects by the later race film The Hurricane (1999), a story which explicitly argued that black boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was framed and imprisoned due to white racism.

Philadelphia (1993) is among the more clever vehicles for discussion of racism and discrimination, as it depicts the plight of a closeted gay man (Tom Hanks) dying of AIDS. Hanks plays successful young lawyer Andrew Beckett who is fired from his law firm after a colleague notices lesions on his face caused by AIDS. The film uses reverse bias to show the audience that it is inhumane to have any prejudices at all. Washington plays the part of B-grade lawyer Joe Miller, a macho African America who despises homosexuality. The irony set up by this plot is obvious: of anyone, a black man should know the evils of prejudice and discrimination. His subsequent education becomes the hoped-for education of benighted viewers.

Crimson Tide (1995) is a more subtle Washington approach for taking a stand against white racism. The issue of race and power in America is introduced in the opening scene, which tells us that the three most powerful men in the world are the President of the United States, the President of Russia, and the commander of a nuclear ballistic submarine. At the start of the film, the commander (played by Gene Hackman) is white. Washington plays a more educated, peace loving officer who eventually takes control of the boat and prevents an unnecessary nuclear strike.

Chastised, the white commander exits the stage, which would seem to be the subliminal intended cue for white men in general. This explicit portrayal of role reversal exists as part of the greater narrative from Hollywood film and other media, academia, the courts and the government in which whites are removed from their niche and replaced by non-whites.

Remember the Titans (2000), perhaps more than any other Hollywood movie, presents the template for the planned replacement of the American majority. Ostensibly a heart-warming tale about a group of high school football players working to overcome racism in turbulent times, the barely buried subtext is that whites will gladly — altruistically — hand over to blacks every favorable niche they have. The football team represents American society in microcosm: black, white, and tense. Only through the replacement of the white coach and white players by black counterparts can amity be realized. In the film, most whites accept this displacement with but slight resistance.

For a longer essay on this topic, I plan to view all or at least the majority of Denzel Washington’s films. Of the more recent ones, Antwone Fisher (2002) certainly fits the race genre, while reviews suggest American Gangster (2007) does as well. It was while viewing the 2006 Déjà Vu, however, that I discovered an unwelcome twist to the typical Washington-character-as-moral-exemplar format: In Déjà Vu the morally flawed or racist white is portrayed as nearly demonic. And his evil is directed at a perfectly innocent black woman, as well as at Americans more generally.

Déjà Vu accesses Americans’ memories of three traumatic events—the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina (complete with its overtones of racist whites). Like executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the villain in Déjà Vu is a young white “patriot,” who has planted a bomb on a New Orleans ferry, killing 543 innocent Americans in the process. The central victim is Claire, a beautiful young African American woman who was actually killed prior to the ferry explosion. Washington, as ATF agent Doug Carlin, falls in love with her as he voyeuristically watches her through a kind of limited time machine.

Carlin was distraught when he first viewed Claire’s lifeless body, still drenched in the same kind of gasoline as the victims of the ferry bombing. The fingers on one of her hands are missing, apparently sliced off in the explosion. In an effort to prevent Claire’s death and the ferry bombing, Carlin studies the actions of the bomber and travels back through time to thwart him. It is here that we see Claire’s demise in real time.

The fanatical white bomber is played by James Caviezel, who previously had portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. To throw investigators off, he attempts to inflict injuries on Claire that would be consistent with injuries sustained in the ferry bombing. Here we see the demonic as enacted by a white man upon a helpless black woman.

Claire is tied to a chair, arms behind her back. Then, in preparation for her immolation, the bomber pours gasoline over her hooded head. Next, he sadistically brandishes pruning shears as he approaches the thrashing black captive. As she screams through her hood, the bomber slowly picks up her hand and prepares to cut off her fingers. Hence the missing digits.

Any normal viewer would react with horror at such an unimaginable instance of evil. Further, he might even equate such evil with the race of the villain in the film. The idea that popular images translate into harmful stereotypes has a long pedigree, both in academia and in the public mind as well.

Ethnic Notions, for instance, is a documentary exploring “the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black prejudice.” Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture and White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture do the same in book form. Slaying the Dragon and Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re)Educational Videotape do so for the sexual objectification of Asian women in Hollywood films that “whites” allegedly produce.

None of these distinguish between European-derived whites and Jews, of course, despite the fact that the latter have dominated Hollywood from its inception. See, for example, Neal Gabler’s wonderful An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. For the multicultural project as a whole, however, it is white males (clearly understood as non-Jewish) who are the principal oppressors of the rest of the world. Among the ranks of the victims, Jews rank near or at the top because of the Holocaust, a narrative that is constantly reinforced by Hollywood.

In the last two decades or so, there is simply no correlate among minority images to equal the constant barrage of negative images of white males. For instance, rarely do truly negative images of Jews appear in American film, and the image of the black male has undergone a 180-degree change. From the savages and rapists of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic Birth of a Nation, film audiences are now treated to a steady diet of films with stars who have joined Sidney Poitier in the category of black film icons: Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, and Samuel L. Jackson, with the possible additions of James Earl Jones, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Contemporary viewers are unlikely to ever see the blood-curdling violence of ‘true crime’ attacks by black males on innocent white victims in cases such as the Wichita Massacre (five young whites raped and/or murdered), the Knoxville slayings, or the pre-Christmas murder of a family of four whites by a slightly built black man in Ithaca, NY. Instead, the news media focus far more on the alleged crimes of white men, as in the Duke Lacrosse rape hoax or the Jena 6 fraud.

How Hollywood spins its powerful tales of good and evil, and how those tales invariably present and reinforce racially-coded messages, is a long and complex story. But it should give one pause that in a society that was created and once dominated by whites, a consistent message is emitted portraying white males as so often vile and evil. Not only are minorities who identify with the film victims of white mayhem likely to internalize a desire for revenge, but many whites themselves will subconsciously respond by wanting to punish the white evildoers. This process of white “altruistic punishment” can be likened to a body’s immune system going haywire and destroying its own healthy cells.

To be sure, one film alone is unlikely to establish a lasting image of any character or race. Rather, what is important is to identify the common characters and scenes that are repeated over time. Further, merely looking at one set of creators for one film — in this case director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Alien, Kingdom of Heaven Scott) and screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio — will not establish which power ultimately controls the film industry. What is needed is an appreciation of the ideological hegemony within Hollywood and the determination to investigate its productions over a long period of time. Such an effort may then shed light on why the white male is so often depicted as violent and evil. In real life in America, many others provide their share of evil doing, yet we rarely see them on the screen.

Edmund Connelly is a freelance writer, academic, and expert on the cinema arts. He has previously written for The Occidental Quarterly.