In post-civil rights America, it seems like everyone wanted black men to be Martin Luther King Jr. Not the womanizing, chain-smoking party boy he was in real life, but the nonviolent, well-spoken vessel for change. The messianic Martin is a legacy far too luminous to contend with. He is worshipped by whites and blacks alike, like the second coming of Jesus himself. Blacks and whites alike quote his speeches and cast him as a superhero, never acknowledging the inherent unfairness of casting a dead man as a viable role model, and his "dream" as an attainable goal, only to fortify the folk tale by commercializing it. Young black men for years (and still some do today) grew up with pictures of Jesus and Martin in the living room on the mantel. The message is that Dad is obviously too human to be a role model, son. So strive to live up to the impossible. Again, White America cosigns a wounded leader. Later, they would annoint two others with the mantel of leadership.
The revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were once effective agents for change, but today are toothless, as they exist on the brink of self-parody. Media rainmakers, yes; sometimes they are on message, but more often than not, they subsist mainly by shaking loot from the white guilt tree at prescribed intervals. Jesse can't fight the power without some kind of bad rhetorical rap. And ever since Al's talk-show antics with show host Wally George and fellow niggerati Roy Innis, cameras follow them both everywhere, eager to catch their antics.
What the ideologues and the athletes have in common is the way they were created, nurtured and summarily undone by the white mainstream. They were media-created apparitions set in place to serve as examples or object lessons: Stay in line, or we will destroy you too. The only viable leadership for black America — necessarily cosigned by white America — is dead leadership. Celebrity athletes can be made and unmade, and this is the kind of paradigmatic black man the mainstream prefers: one who can be built and destroyed in short order, his message and appeal easily controlled.
The paradoxically effeminate man rose up in the disco era as the new paradigm of manhood. The women's movement rejected the tough-guy war hero/cowboy of the '50s and '60s in favor of men that embraced their feminine side ... aggressively. The Stonewall Riots and the gay-rights movement it started also made androgyny commonplace, acceptable and, in some circles, preferred. White men began to wear bouffant hairdos, and in the black community, the conk — the smoothed-back straightening that became fashionable for men in the early days of the rhythm and blues era — came back, along with flamboyant suits, hip-huggers and platform shoes. John Shaft's black-and-proud Afro was rejected in favor of Youngblood Priest's flowing locks and manicured beard. So grown men sat in beauty shops everywhere with their hair in curlers getting their beards shaped up.
Billy Dee Williams was the vanguard of the new black "it" man: Super cool, not too dark, not too light, with a no-lye relaxer in his hair, he was just tough enough to open a can of Colt 45, but too soft to be taken seriously. And he wasn't: Later, this image would become the sight joke to many skits. He was probably a pretty down-ass dude, but Williams appeared on film to be the kind of guy who got sexed up in the discotheque but beat up in the street for switching like a girl. He was the chocolate John Travolta, minus the machismo. While the bald Telly Savalas, lollipop in hand (WTF?), asked a generation of women, "Who loves ya, baby?," Billy Dee got over with an entire generation of black women who refused to date any man who could not be mistaken for a woman.
This continued into the '80s, when men that looked like women got truckloads of pussy. Women wanted slight, effeminate men with long, dripping curls and perms. Androgyny became a coveted quality in a man. I guess this explains how Jesse "Side Action" Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, with their Jheri curls and permed-out hair, could ever be taken seriously in the black community. Brothers like El Debarge, Michael Jackson, Prince and Rick James were everything everyman should be back in the day. All those men, coincidently, looked and acted like women in some way. They were slightly built with a coy, feminine affect. Even Full Force, a talented group of weightlifting singer/producers who wore a lot of lip gloss, mascara, eyeliner and baby-hair, looked like a gang of jailhouse gorilla queers. Take a look back at rappers like Ice T, Dr. Dre and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and it's clear these brothers weren't shopping in the men's department. But that's what ladies were looking for. No surprise, then, that Michael Jackson would be the megastar of this era: A racially ambiguous, sexually ambiguous, singing-and-dancing black man sounds like a marketing executive's wet dream. I even fell into that bag in junior high school.
When I got to school, I borrowed eyeliner and (brown) lipstick from my girlfriend, trying to be sexy, and it worked. I got a few handjobs between classes and even got invited to group-sex parties after school. Thank God Run-DMC came along. Before them, a lot of hip-hoppers — including myself — were sizing themselves up for lace gloves and elf boots. 'Twas the only way you could get any pussy. Small wonder that today's hip-hop is soaked in testosterone and prone, half-naked women. It's a natural attempt to balance black women's need to emasculate black men. Because they don't really know what masculinity looks like, they've been writing their own playbook. Hip-hop culture came along, unapologetically macho, and alienated the mainstream until corporate America refined the narrative down to a message — sex, drugs and violence — that could be easily consumed and disposed of.
In the era of Eddie Murphy rose a black man who could be taken seriously. Undeniably, he owned the '80s, but with his leather pants, donkey-toothed smile and laugh to match, Murphy was that goofy black guy who loves to make you laugh and you love to call your friend but not the one you'd invite to dinner. Denzel Washington stepped up and made his mark in the '80s. The Dizzle picked up where Sidney Poitier left off, adding sexuality to the mix in a passive-aggressive, non-threatening way. Murphy was funny, but too horny and pseudo-political to rise as a role model. Michael Jackson and Prince were too close to being women. Denzel was hard on the outside, but soft in the middle: He chose roles with depth. With an easy smile and a slight overbite, Denzel distinguished himself from the cast of TV's St. Elsewhere as the prototype of the American dream: An assimilated black man — a doctor! — devoid of anger or resentment, fully invested in the system and free of any radical politics or overt sexuality that might get him arrested.
Denzel chose roles early in his career that gave him wide appeal. In a career spent playing iconic characters (Malcolm X, Cry Freedom); flawed, talented men with the best of intentions (Mo' Better Blues, The Hurricane); streetwise detectives (The Mighty Quinn, Devil in a Blue Dress); lovesick dreamers (Mississippi Masala); and ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances (Ricochet, Inside Man), he never passes up a chance to play a hero. Onscreen, he's always delivering someone from great peril (Man On Fire), or experiencing a spiritual transformation that uplifts his soul ... just before he gets killed (Glory).
An exceptional actor, the Best Actor Oscar eluded him for many years. After years of being nominated, Dizzle finally won for playing a character familiar and comfortable to the mainstream audience: Alonzo Harris. It's not hard to surmise why he didn't get an Academy Award until he played a villain. Up to this point, I think we assumed he was cast to type. In the mind of the movie-going public, Denzel is a hero. Sure, he says in interviews that he doesn't like being seen as a role model or the face of the race. But his humility and resistant ascent is part of what has lifted him there. Every rumor of infidelity is met with unequivocal denial as he underlines his undying love for his wife-for-life, Pauletta. He has managed to dodge scandal and become a success on his own terms.
He says in interviews that he doesn't choose bigger-than-life characters, that he is just attracted to good scripts. Maybe it's coincidence that he gets such damn good scripts. It bodes well for the Dizzle that, in a world where black male stars have to don a dress to find movie blockbuster success (Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes come to mind), Denzel has never been punked by a role: He's never played a chump. Or a villain. So playing the corrupt cop in Training Day seemed like his most dramatic stretch to date. Small wonder he won an Oscar. He's the only black actor with two Oscars on his dresser (he won Supporting Actor honors for his turn as escaped slavebuck-turned-patriot in the Civil War drama Glory).
What's most interesting about his movies is that all that prevents Denzel's films from seeping into the realm of blaxploitation is so often just his dignity, coupled with the latent politics. Think about it: Carbon Copy not withstanding (we all make mistakes), without the Dizzle, Virtuosity, Ricochet and Training Day would have been impossibly campy. Mainstream audiences prefer to see the badass-nigger narrative as opposed to a layered portrayal that requires them to question their presumptions about black men. But Denzel brings his smile, his forthrightness and that innate Dizzle quality that makes the ladies swoon and the men cheer him on. He's black in the best possible way.
The other piece of Denzel's appeal — in the black community, for sure — is this tacit loyalty to black women. The film where he came closest to this line, Mississippi Masala, was a sleeper art-house film that flew underneath the radar of most of his fans. This film traced the interracial cultural mashup of a newly divorced black carpet cleaner and the daughter of an Indian hotel owner, and wasn't well received. Spike Lee's He Got Game, where Denzel is paired in a love scene with Milla Jovovich, also underperformed at the box office. Like that turd of a film The Mighty Quinn, most of his fans have not seen it. White women respect his racial solidarity, and black women have come to expect it. This is the brand of true-blue blackness they want in their men.
Even while rejecting it wholesale, he maintains the veneer of being the whole package, and black women claim him and demand that their men rise to that standard, much to their dismay. This would all be bad enough, but as it turns out, Denzel Washington is the perfect specimen of man. Seriously.
According to a Newsweek article, beauty is a biological trait attributable to the way your nose, eyes and mouth lay on your face. Something deep in our subconscious is inexplicably drawn in. That's why some people are found so profoundly attractive. As it happens, Denzel's face is faultless and symmetrical and therefore almost universally beautiful. It's not bad enough that black women want black men to be perfect, but they want us to aspire to be like someone who is genetically predisposed to exude perfection. How can you compete with the Dizzle? Shit, what happened to the '80s, when it was easy just to get a Jheri curl to get some pussy? Now, you have to be the Dizzle to get any holla. I know, I know, man: You probably think you do OK, pussy-wise. You're wrong.
Every black man has been a slave to the Denzel Principle in one way or another.
Reprinted with permission from The Denzel Principle
(St. Martin's Press, February 2010).
Izrael will speak and sign copies of the book at 7 p.m. March 9, at Joseph Beth Booksellers (Legacy Village, 24519 Cedar Rd. Lyndhurst, 216.691.7000, josephbeth.com) and at 7 p.m. March 20, at Mac's Backs (1820 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216.321.2665, macsbacks.com).