‘Tis the season for pretentious, overly long commencement speeches. But one commencement speech has been getting particular attention in the media recently: Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington’s address to the graduates of Dillard University. Dillard is a small, private school for black students in New Orleans. When Washington stepped to the podium, he announced that he was going to “keep it short,” unlike his commencement speaker, who “went on forever, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, this is pretty much spot-on. I speak from experience.)
Here is the short, simple message Washington wanted to convey: “Number one: Put. God. First. In everything you do, put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything you think you see in me, everything I’ve accomplished, everything you think I have (and I have a few things), everything that I have is by the grace of God.”
The speech has gone viral. There’s some unfortunate prosperity gospel business towards the end, but on the whole it’s pretty great, and you can read more quotes here, or watch it in full here if you don’t mind handheld video. The passion and conviction of Washington’s delivery is disarming, considering his stature in Hollywood. But then, Washington has never been one to shy away from talking about what he believes.
Washington was raised in the Pentecostal church. His father was a minister who pieced together a living from two weekday jobs. Tragically, his parents divorced when he was 14 years old, and his father left his mother to raise the family on a beautician’s wage. Although he was steeped in a religious background, Washington recalls that he went through a rebellious period in his teens as he worked out the pain of the divorce. For a time, he rejected the faith altogether. But he promised himself that he would never let his own marriage fall apart. That’s a vow that he’s kept for thirty years with the woman he ultimately married.
He waffled between majors in college, initially flunking out with a dismal 1.7 GPA (as he recounted with relish for the Dillard students, although he would in fact return to school and earn a B.A. in drama and journalism). But when he decided to try his hand at acting, it became quickly apparent that he had a gift. That same year, an old woman in his mother’s beauty parlor surprised him by “prophesying” that he was going to travel the world and preach. It’s still something he considers all these years later, even asking his pastor whether he chose the right profession. But his pastor offered another angle: “You have a pulpit of your own.” And while Washington has never formally been ordained into the ministry, he has certainly made the most of his notoriety. He talks about his faith at length in interviews, saying that he reads the Bible daily and that “God is my only real hero.”
He’s also spoken about how it informs his choice of roles. His repertoire is prolific and varied, ranging from Shakespearean theater to political thrillers to human dramas. He picked up his first Oscar for an inspiring turn as a black Civil War soldier in Glory (1989). Twelve years later, he won a second time for a radically different performance as a corrupt, power-hungry narcotics cop in Training Day (2001). Although films like Book of Eli, Remember the Titans, and Flight have a redemptive tone, he’s no stranger to bleak, brutally violent projects either. He’s also said that he doesn’t view it as his job to police other people’s morals and shies from being pegged as a fundamentalist (“I like my wine”). However, he has been known to make creative demands in order to shift a project’s message to something more morally grounded. For example, the fate of his character in Training Day was not originally in the script, but Washington insisted that he have a grim end to show that corruption doesn’t pay. And while his character in Man on Fire is willing to torture men on his mission to rescue a small girl, the only thing that will truly save her in the end is an act of self-sacrifice.
Christians have expressed concerns over how Washington could appear in films with graphic violence, but more disconcerting to me is his willingness to perform sexually graphic scenes. Christians might justifiably wonder how somebody who appears to be a sincere follower of Christ could have no qualms about this sort of content. Devout Catholic actors like Eduardo Verastegui and Jim Caviezel have openly discussed it as a problem and have sometimes struggled to find work as a result. I wish Washington was willing to place similar boundaries. Gratuitous sexual content is morally toxic both for the viewer and for the actors who participate in it. We might get a hint of how Washington justifies it to himself in this quote: “Acting is what I do. It’s not my identity.” By contrast, faith “is my life.” But graphic sexuality is one area where compartmentalizing is simply not advisable or feasible. It’s bad for the creator and bad for the consumer any way you slice it. An additional problem is that the willingness to take on such roles has opened Denzel up to tabloid gossip about his real life. The rumors have never been substantiated, but it’s just one more unpleasant side effect of his choice. And if this quotation from a 1993 interview with Barbara Walters is any indication, restraint in this area may be a more urgent matter than he’s willing to admit: “Being a star and all of that, temptation is all around. It’s all around, you know, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that.”
However, the image Washington has most consistently projected is that of a family man, who hopes that having his wife and children with him in publicity photos will provide a healthy role model for the black community. And while he’s willing (maybe too willing) to explore debauched characters in his acting, he’s never been assimilated into the general Hollywood culture. In his words, he “doesn’t want movie-star friends.” Explaining why he’s not part of Hollywood’s inner circle, he reflects, “Maybe I’m not a schmoozer. I’m not about to go to a party to try to get a job.” But his fans, they’re a different story. Warm, quick-witted and gregarious, Washington relishes autograph signings and meet and greets. When comparing theater with the movies, he’s commented that theater gives you the advantage of being able to interact one-on-one with fans after a performance. He recalled one amusing conversation after a performance of Julius Caesar where teachers brought students from the local high-schools. One kid who was performing in his school’s production of the same play said nonchalantly, “Well, my Brutus is a little bit different…”
He also maintains a refreshing humility in his interviews. He confesses to getting a thrill out of his Oscar wins, but he wears his accolades lightly, shrugging off titles like “A-lister,” “movie star,” and People Magazine‘s “Sexiest Man Alive” as “just labels.” He reflects, “People heap attention onto you, and most of it is hype. I struggle to resist it in order not to be affected by it.” When asked “What are you proud of?” he responds, “I’m careful about the word ‘proud.'” His puckish humor can also come out when he’s commenting on the industry at large. When he was asked to comment on the 3D trend in movies, he answered, “I think the industry jumps on anything that’s popular and bleed it until it’s useless, and people get sick of it, and then they’ll move on to something else.” The interviewer asked if he liked Avatar, and he said, “I didn’t see Avatar. Cameron doesn’t need my money! Believe me! I think he’s all right, though.”
Unfortunately, Denzel does go with the crowd when it comes to politics. He campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and even continued to defend him in 2010. This is sadly par for the course in the black community, so I can’t say I’m too terribly shocked. But a part of me did hope Washington had enough savvy and clarity not to drink the koolaid. Google “Denzel Washington” and “abortion,” and you will find him breathing nary a word about the issue or Obama’s stance on it. If only he would take some of that rhetorical firepower and make an equally impassioned plea for the lives of the unborn. Washington has also accepted roles in films like Philadelphia (a 90s court drama that pushes a homosexual agenda), and Malcolm X, which comes dangerously close to romanticizing the ruthless leader (though Washington himself has demurred that he doesn’t subscribe to Malcolm’s philosophy).
In conclusion, Washington is obviously a brilliant actor who takes his craft seriously and has lent his talents to a rich body of works. Some of them are memorable and well-made, some of them are R-rated, and some of them are both. One could argue that his commitment to excellence is in itself an effective witness, although this becomes problematic when his role requires him to perform sexual acts in character. The fact that he’s kept his family together for 30 years is worth celebrating, but he himself has admitted that temptation is present, and he isn’t immune to it. At the same time, he seems like a pretty classy, fun guy to be around, and more importantly, like someone who treats the Christian faith seriously. That’s not to downplay the seriousness of his loose acting standards or his blind support of a corrupt demagogue like Barack Obama. I also don’t want to overlook the fact that he’s clearly been very influenced by a prosperity approach to the gospel, which is theologically problematic. But given the relentlessly candid way he wears his faith on his sleeve in a hostile culture, I think it would take more for me to say unequivocally, “This man can’t be a Christian.” I can definitely say that any Christian who has aspirations towards show business should study his example, both to learn from it and to consider how it could be improved.
If you’d like to see a nice overview of Denzel’s work, here is a short Youtube essay counting down his top ten roles. Please be advised that there is some implied violence in the first clip, a little mild language, and one bleeped-out harsh obscenity from his character in Training Day.