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How Much Ado is Too Much?

Philip Burrowes

The obvious meaning (or is it double-meaning?) to the movie title John Q is that the title character -- John Quincy Archibald -- could represent any John Q. Public whose family is lost through the cracks by managed health care. Only this time, the “Public” fights back by using a gun to take an emergency room hostage and indirectly turning the system’s own media against it. Well, that and this average John, because he is played by Denzel Washington, is black. Are we to believe that the United States has evovled since Washington’s debut in the 1981 film Carbon Copy, where the premise of the movie was his “black-ness,” to the point where a black man can depict your everyday American?

Some of you are probably confused by now. What the devil could possibly be wrong with letting Denzel play this part? He’s an Oscar-winning actor up for another Oscar this year; he can play anything he wants, right? Well let’s take a look at what he won the Oscar for. He played a slave in Glory. As for his recent nomination for Training Day, he played a corrupt cop. Let’s not forget his similarly-nominated command performances in Malcolm X and Hurricane, both of which had him playing ex-convicts.

In all due fairness, Mr. Washington has also played a few lawyers, many officers of various types, and once played an angel. Nor has he only been recognized by the Academy for performances that “put black people in their place,” as only his recent turn playing Alonzo Harris in Training Day could be seen as negative. The point is he has made a career of roles where his race was central to the story and now when he’s supposed to signify the collective worries of “ordinary” citizens, we should swallow that without another thought?

Or maybe it was deliberate, and the filmmakers were trying to send a message. They could be trying to say it’s time to accept blacks as no different from any other person. Certainly they couldn’t be saying the only men capable of resorting to violence against the system are black (if only because Michael Douglas was all over the Angry White Male thing in Falling Down). What reason is there to rule out, however, that they felt black males either had greater propensity towards such action or would better represent embattled rage? Isn’t that all black men complain about: The Man putting them down while black women emasculate them because of parenting issues? All of a sudden it’s not a coincidence that John Q is pushed into action by his wife’s demands for resolution of his son’s situation.

Before this turns into merely a rant on Denzel Washington and John Q, let’s take a long look at the rest of the box office. Snow Dogs starred another Oscar-winning black actor (and it’s fair to say Cuba Gooding Jr.’s believability in Jerry Maguire hinged greatly on his being black) in which the fish-out-of-water premise was no doubt played up visually by skin color; it was Cool Runnings: Special Edition. Monster’s Ball garnered black actress Halle Berry an Oscar nomination for a role which much more deeply revolved around race. Hart’s War relies heavily upon race but it’s easily overlooked given the current patriotic atmosphere. Pop-star vehicles A Walk to Remember and Crossroads both have token black characters, which tend to paradoxically reinforce the notion of “black-ness” as compared to “her-ness.” Let’s not even get into the lily-whiteness of Oscar darlings A Beautiful Mind and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring because here that would require getting a little too personal.

Queen of the Damned and Rollerball are perhaps the only major films on the market where race did not dictate casting of black leads. Then again, an argument could be made that their respective stars -- Aaliyah and LL Cool J -- could not have gotten parts without their musical success, which in turn was made a great deal easier by their race. It’s more supportable for LL given the often parochial attitude of the rap community (being from Queens may have made it just as easy on him at the beginning of his career, for New York was cranking out the dominant rap artists) but as Christina Aguilera, Teena Marie, and even Elvis Presley could attest, singing the same way but looking different equals another genre.

What about Sammy Davis, Jr.? He sang the same style as the rest of The Rat Pack. Granted he never went through Paul Robeson-sized troubles, but he had his difficulties. In any case Frank and Dean didn’t try to use him for his race either to target other black people or to seem more integrated for whites (with all due respect to the billions of people who aren’t black and/or white, who cared about you back then?) yet it’s not like we can pretend it wasn’t an issue. The next question is, does that make us worse or better off?