For most of his career, Denzel Washington has been the epitome of a "race man" - a well-mannered, well-intentioned role model thoroughly committed to black uplift. He's maintaining that tradition in "The Great Debaters," a new film in which he plays a champion debate coach in the segregated South.
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But his recent portrayal of the murderous Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas in "American Gangster," following his Oscar-winning performance as the corrupt cop Alonzo in "Training Day," has shaken his standing as a race man - and has prompted speculation that, after years of playing characters who symbolized African-Americans' mainstream acceptance, he's finally selling out to a commercial culture eager to make a buck off of portraying black men as thugs.
That's not how I see it. To me, the more important question that Washington's career choices raise is: Why, as the nation grows to appreciate the many different ways of being black, do we still need race men at all?
"Race man" is a term from the beginning of the 20th century that describes black men of stature and integrity who represented the best that African-Americans had to offer in the face of Jim Crow segregation. It has lost some of its resonance in a post-civil rights world, but it remains an unspoken measure of commitment to uplifting the race. Race men inspire pride; their work, their actions and their speech represent excellence instead of evoking shame and embarrassment. Thus the pundit Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (even with an illegitimate child) can be race men, whereas the comedian Dave Chappelle and the rapper/mogul Jay-Z can never be.
In his collaborations with director Spike Lee, Washington complicated the race-man ethos. No longer defined solely by their willingness to stand up for their race, characters such as Bleek Gilliam ("Mo' Better Blues"), Jake Shuttlesworth ("He Got Game") and Detective Keith Frazier ("Inside Man") represented the new race man, whose main emphasis was on being manly. These characters were self-absorbed and selfish and demanded the respect they thought they deserved. Still, many black audiences embraced them, if only because Washington had earned their trust, especially after his signature collaboration with Lee on the film "Malcolm X."
But that trust began to erode with Washington's portrayal of Alonzo in "Training Day." When he finally won the coveted Best Actor Oscar for that role, on the same night that Halle Berry won Best Actress, much was made of their being rewarded for portraying characters who demeaned African-Americans. And yet it was easy to give Washington a pass, because the Motion Picture Academy had ignored his more celebrated roles as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Malcolm X.
The cultural landscape has changed considerably since then. In the aftermath of the Don Imus debacle, hip-hop culture and rap music in particular have become litmus tests for the recent erosion of black culture's prestige.
Washington's desire to portray the gangster Lucas - the kind of character that has become a staple of so much commercial rap music - understandably raised eyebrows. In an interview with Men's Vogue, the actor defended his choices: "It's not about the black experience. It's more specific and selfish than that. It's what I feel like doing, not what I feel like people need."
The problem with the idea of the race man is not that too few strive to embody it but that it purports to define the kind of black body that can represent the whole race.
No one representation of blackness - positive or not - can encompass the complexity of black life. And what do we do with figures such as Oprah Winfrey or Sen. Barack Obama, both of whom challenge a tradition that expects black leadership to be incubated, as so many race men were, in the bosom of the black church? With Winfrey and Obama poised to revamp the very premise of mainstream political leadership in this country, perhaps it's time to give the race man the eulogy he deserves after more than a century of service. And let's give Denzel Washington some credit for finding value in our complexity.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of "New Black Man."