Denzel Washington on race relations: You can’t legislate love

After winning the Tony Award in 2010 for playing the lead character, Troy, in August Wilson’s Pulitzer winning play, Fences, Denzel Washington reprises the role in the play’s film adaptation, which he also directs. Yet again, his performance was greeted with critical praise and garnered him a 7th Golden Globe nomination.

Set in 1950th Pittsburg, Fences explores universal themes like family values and personal ambitions through the examination of race discrimination and African-Americans’ lives from the perspective of a 53-year-old head of a household, Troy, who was a great baseball player in his youth, but now he works as a garbage collector. Convinced that his skin color was the obstacle that blocked his path to glory, Troy vents his bitterness and frustration on his loved-ones, jeopardising his son’s, Cory, dream to become a football player and cheating on his wife, Rose (played by Golden Globe nominee Viola Davis) with another woman.

Troy’s story embodies the racial discriminations that cripples African Americans’ ambitions and robs them of professional opportunities and festers anger and hopelessness inside them that ultimately leads to violent crime and a collapse of family structure. But Washington is not convinced by Troy’s argument. “What if he was not good enough? It’s easy to blame it on racism” he asked, referring to Rosa’s contention that maybe he was too old. “

Granted, but that doesn’t explain the dearth of black players in American professional sport in those days. The Golden Globes-winning actor concedes that racism was a culprit but adds that progress is being made. “It’s a process. If you’ve been held back for 400 years as most African Americans have, it will take time, not just to stand up, but for those to recognize you, for those to embrace you and those to think that you’re good business. Every generation struggles for the next ones and helps in paving the way for them to do better.”

Troy, however, stymies his son’s attempt to ride the tide of progress, because he believes that racial discrimination will render his endeavors futile. Troy’s behaviour, according to Washington, is the real obstacle to progress. ““When I was nominated for “Malcolm X” and Al Pacino won for “Scent of A Woman,” people said ‘Well, is that racist because he won and I didn’t?’ I said ‘Al Pacino was nominated 8 times and hadn’t won. I had been nominated twice and I already won. So it’s easy and sometimes convenient to say it’s racial.’”

The son of a pentecostal minister and a beauty parlor owner has been a symbol of African American progress in the entertainment industry since he made his major career break in 1982, starring as Dr. Phillip Chandler in NBC’s television hospital drama St. Elsewhere. He was one of only a few African American actors to appear on the series for its entire six-year run.

In 2000, he was the first black American to win a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for playing boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter in The Hurricane in 36 years, since Sidney Poitier won it in 1963. He had already won the trophy in the Best Supporting Actor category in 1989 for portraying a defiant, self-possessed ex-slave soldier in Glory. And at the 2016’s Golden Globe ceremony, he was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

The 63-year-old star’s success is not limited to winning accolades. Over the course of his three decades career, his movies have generated over $3 billion in the box office. Few actors could guarantee the solid numbers his movies consistently deliver. In fact, he has outlasted white actors of his generation, such as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, who have seen their box office power wane over the last 10 years.

“We all have to keep trying, and not just point the finger at the one who has to make the hard decision,” he says. “You’ve the right to be angry, but you gotta do something about it. It requires hard work, perseverance and sacrifices for the next generation.”

Washington believes that racism can’t be beaten by law. “You can’t legislate love,” he explains. “If you go home and teach your son to hate, then law won’t be able to stop it.”

What is his solution? “Go watch Fences,” he chuckles!