Two myths run in tandem in The Equalizer: Denzel Washington‘s peculiarly weighted stardom, and widely held but mistaken beliefs about President Barack Obama. The film’s tagline, “Denzel Washington The Equalizer” resonates the idea of official racial equalizer, the same as “President Barack Obama.” Black American icons have that effect. Though no less fatuous than the old “Sean Connery IS James Bond,” it commercializes a popular notion, distilling some delusions of our current political era.
As McCall, a middle-aged black man working at a hardware megastore in Boston, Denzel keeps his head close-cropped, yet crowned by a layer of gray hairs marking stress and experience. Surface bonhomie hides McCall’s spartan lifestyle. His discipline (trim with a vegetarian diet), literacy (currently reading The Old Man and the Sea), and competency come in handy when coworkers and a young hooker who hangs out at his bleak Edward Hopper–style diner need his help. McCall goes into mega-efficient action, betraying his hidden background as a skilled former government assassin. He takes on Beantown’s corrupt Irish police establishment and Russian mob with such lethal efficacy that the news media misreport his 19-second massacre of five Slavic mobsters as a “gangland style execution.”
No more standing beneath John Lithgow (The Pelican Brief) or being slapped by Gene Hackman (Crimson Tide) for Denzel. His rise to one-name stardom, two Oscars, and multimillion-dollar paychecks asserts some undeniable ambition. Having surpassed Sidney Poitier’s benchmark breaking of Hollywood’s color bar, he’s become the not-nice Poitier — the rebellious preacher’s son specializing in frequently ultraviolent badass aggression (Malcolm X, Training Day, Fallen, John Q, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Book of Eli, Safe House, American Gangster, Flight, 2 Guns). He’s the only matinee idol to prefer a belligerent image — which is largely the secret of his success. Even in less hostile roles (Richochet, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Bone Collector, Inside Man, Out of Time) he’s still stuck playing black-male stereotypes in genres that merely update 70s blaxploitation without improving on the model.
Both 60-year-old Denzel and his 48-year-old director, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), ingested a lot of hooey from the pop-culture double-whammy of blaxploitation and hip-hop, which turned the threatening black male into a marketable concept. They don’t explain why, as in political-protest movies; they just make souped-up pop mythology, using their Hollywood success to overcompensate for MLK’s notion of “overcoming.” McCall’s calm ferocity carries a lot of facile anger, mixing gun-wielding cocksmanship and subliminal entitlement. It triggers the dissatisfaction audiences bring to the movies, seeking redress for daily frustrations and providing fantasy empowerment and retribution. Remaking The Equalizer, a 1980s TV series that starred white, middle-aged British actor Edward Woodward, is a predictably lame “advance” from Training Day for Denzel and Fuqua’s black stud formula.
Fuqua’s the kind of TV hack who does close-ups of water faucets. He’s not above repeating the slo-mo fireball walk-away and sneaks in a Joy Division song for a David Fincher effect. I give him props for characterizing the villainous Russian (Martin Csokas doing a malevolent Kevin Spacey) by superimposing his Satanic tattoos to overshadow the city like in Murnau’s Faust. But it’s still a Dennis Lehane–style cartoon ethnic Boston where bad cops resemble the KKK, and this is still third-rate storytelling with scant social context. After all, it’s Fuqua who, at best, rises to the level of perfunctory. The Equalizer feels like a deluxe TV episode; Golden Agers should love it.
Denzel isn’t Spike Lee’s favorite actor for nothing. He knows how to use the undeniable social implications of his stardom, and his vanity drags Obama’s behind it like a shadow. Neither man’s myth eclipses the other; after all, Denzel became a star first. Turns out his sexy-capable popularity has more in common with Obama’s ascension than Bill Cosby’s familiarity, as initially thought. The Equalizer is Denzel’s first role to elaborate on this Obama simulacrum. McCall is the social savior Obama’s constituents mandate. (When Melissa Leo, as his government connection, explains, “We made some wrong decisions to get to the right place,” she could be his speech writer.) McCall’s bellicosity on behalf of the immigrant workers he rescues is a spurious exercise, like a campaign promise — an advertisement for what moviegoers, like voters, desperately want to believe.
When McCall tells the weary Russian call girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), “I think you can be anything you want to be,” and she says, “Maybe in your world,” he dares, “Change your world.” It’s open borders, come-to-America (Hollywood) shtick that romanticizes the immigrant’s plight while ignoring systemic poverty and racism. Denzel and Fuqua play the Obama game but do not improve upon blaxploitation — or the post-racial nonsense that Quentin Tarantino has made of its legacy. QT’s blaxploitation updates (Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction) never forfeit his own privileged sense of power; Denzel and Fuqua merely play off Denzel’s black identification and the popular taste for violence. McCall beating up white cops (“You’re supposed to stand for something, punk. Protect and serve. Uphold the law.”) seems ready-made for agitators who predate Ferguson, Mo. One cop’s “motherf—–” tirade is clearly what an MSNBC pundit would charge as an N-word euphemism, another racist affront to the Prez.
Yet, Denzel lacks Gary Cooper’s conviction in Man of the West and High Noon, Fred Williamson’s ghetto loyalty, or John Wayne’s 24/7 sense of mission. McCall’s motivation in The Equalizer is faulty. Vengeful wish fulfillment is one thing, but can vigilantism save America? The blaxploitation genius Larry Cohen (Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem) had a more complicated vision of race, politics, and violence. Cohen was the anti-Tarantino, against the hipster politics that created the Obama myth. Denzel fulfills Obama fantasy, but since America and Hollywood are not post-racial, the black badass stereotype is subliminal and permanent — and that’s OK with duplicitous Denzel. McCall’s killing sprees (particularly several grisly throat-slashings) are O.J. redux — reviving the fearful race fantasy that, for many liberals, Obama’s election was meant to expunge.
Of course Denzel and Fuqua are only making trash; but even trash can signify. Obama’s myth blurs into the Denzel enigma, which The Equalizer examines superficially. The ludicrous allusion to Hemingway’s Pulitzer winner treats Hemingway as an assassin’s instruction manual. The big reveal — when McCall psychoanalyzes the Russian with the taunt “What do you see when you look at me?”– doesn’t work because Fuqua won’t hold long enough for Denzel to act remorse or self-loathing — just his same flat, phony intensity. “Who are you?” the dying Russian hitman cries — the same question the black kid asks at the end of Flight. Answer: Denzel is probably the most insincere movie star in Hollywood history.
John Ridley, the race-hustler who won an Oscar for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, perpetrates a new scam in his directorial debut: a Jimi Hendrix bio-pic, Jimi: All Is by My Side. Not since Lee Daniels’ Precious has such technical incompetence been passed off as art. Ridley uses competing sound mix and wayward editing to convey the mythic moment when Hendrix was embraced by the English music industry and his legend began.
Lack of music rights should not be an impediment, but Ridley seems inspired to a disorienting impressionistic approach. Attempts at late-60s atmosphere, cosmetic details, and stock footage distance the subject. As does Ridley’s focus: When bobbies harass Hendrix and make him surrender a vintage military jacket, the race incident portrays plain injustice and Hendrix’s political affectlessness — just like the victim protagonist in 12 Years. Is it possible the real-life Hendrix was so indifferent to and ignorant of racism? When lectured by black British radicals, Ridley’s Hendrix replies “People are just people, like animals.” It’s Ridley who lacks political, historical orientation.
Frequently shifting focus to the three women Hendrix juggles keeps up one’s interest. They’re an entertaining lot, especially Ruth Negga telling Hayley Atwell her tenure is “a long time in groupie years.” And Imogen Poots plays Linda Keith, Hendrix’s discoverer, in a way that evokes Diane Venora’s Chan Marshall in Bird. In fact Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio-pic and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat bio-pic seem to be Ridley’s models. And rap star Andre Benjamin’s feral naïf Hendrix emulates Jeffrey Wright’s airy naïf in Basquiat. Benjamin, a star in his own right, is first seen as a black-and-white TV image recalling his memorable “Hey Ya” music video for OutKast — a bad call, since Ridley has none of the ingenuity Bryan Barber brought to that short film.
When Ridley includes vague celebrity impersonations and uses graphics to identify Richard Gottehrer, Seymour Stein, and the like, it’s just name-dropping and ass-kissing. Ridley uses Hendrix the way indie debut directors frequently use black subjects — for a calling-card movie.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.