Something in the way three black men move in their current movie roles is evocative not only of the characters they play but also of the times in which these men each lived.
As soon as Denzel Washington walks on-screen in the eponymous role of Roman J. Israel, Esq., it is clear the two-time Oscar-winning actor is exploring new terrain as an actor. Gone is his soulful strut, which has taken its place alongside Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle, Charlie Chaplin’s waddle and John Wayne’s saunter as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable gaits.
Instead, in his new movie, Washington walks as if he’s a tightly wound rubber ball who, nevertheless, doesn’t bounce very high, instead rolling through life with harried purpose, often uphill.
In the movie, Washington comes to grips with the internal and external forces he’s been battling to an anonymous and noble draw, just as so many people in real life do.
In movies such as 42 and Get on Up, a James Brown biopic, Chadwick Boseman has used different walks to portray very different men. As Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman used his walk to portray a great athlete burdened by the pressure of breaking major league baseball’s color line. As Brown, he glided more than walked, a high-flying bird circling his own sun.
Now, as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, Boseman walks with open and confident strides as the crusading civil rights lawyer who would later become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. I’m eager to see how Boseman will walk in Black Panther, a 2018 superhero movie based in Africa. If the teaser trailer is any indication, the Black Panther will walk a little like James Brown. Black superheroes have soul, and they are superbad.
And as Hap Jackson in Mudbound, Rob Morgan walks as if his soul and spirit dance, despite the bone-breaking work he does to support his family in the 1940s American South. And he stands tall, as if he can see a better day for his family and his people.
In Hollywood, actors of all races root their characters in how they move, how they walk. But in much of black America, our men turn everyday walking into a kind of performance art.
During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. walked with the serenity of a man who could hear the waters parting as he sought to lead his people to the promised land.
Twenty years later, a young Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls walked on to NBA basketball courts as if it were Friday night and he carried two weeks’ pay in his back pocket and the prettiest woman on the South Side of Chicago waiting for him back home.
And a generation after that, Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s first black president, walked into the White House as if the majestic horns of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” or Earth, Wind & Fire’s “In the Stone,” fanfares for an uncommon man, heralded his arrival.
When I was a child growing up in Philly, I learned that there was nothing pedestrian about the way black men walked. Instead, each man’s gait revealed a journey, whether it was from the street corners, the factory floors or the cotton fields.
Today, too many young black men walk as if they wear chains around their ankles, tottering back and forth, with no particular place to go. We’d do well to understand the sorrow and disaffection revealed in the way they walk.
In their current movies, Washington, Boseman and Morgan explore the inner and outer space of their characters’ lives. They take us to places we know. They take us to foreign places. They take us to places we’d like to be: a bite of the good life, a sip of forbidden water, the embrace of a good woman.
They ask us to walk with them and see what they see, feel what they feel. We do. And we are better for the journey.