This review includes major plot spoilers.
To protest or not to protest—that is the question of Denzel Washington’s latest project, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” The film challenges us with whether it is “nobler to suffer”—and to forgive real and perceived injustice—or to “take up arms” at possible racism at every turn. “Israel” (Denzel Washington), as a hapless, overweight, savant defense attorney puts this question to us all.
The film opens focused a document that reads, “Roman J. Israel, Esq. vs. Himself” in the “Universal Court of All Humanity.” Only at the end do we fully understand what is afoot. The question put simply: Is the answer to our racial woes an overwhelming protest of oppressed over the oppressor, or is it forgiveness and genuine reconciliation?
From this question, the film can be apprehended in two manners. One, it could indeed be true that to correct the sins of our history the once-oppressor may simply have to submit and become the subject of the once-oppressed. It may be true that the system in place must be destroyed so genuine justice can prevail. On the other hand, the picture presents its audience with a weighty and lingering question: had Israel simply played by the rules in a few key instances, the justice he sought his entire life could have begun to come to fruition.
Is It Better to ‘Take Up Arms,’ O Israel?
This question avails itself to the audience throughout the film. For instance, is George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the lawyer who hires Israel after he falls on hard times, simply trying to exploit this black legal genius, or is Pierce trying to give Israel a real chance in the legal world, perhaps a chance of fulfilling his ultimate dream? Are Israel’s constant protests warranted, or is his persistent consternation actually harming his cause?
The film continues in this way and culminates in one of Israel’s ultimate protests of the system. After improperly plea-bargaining on behalf of one of the firm’s clients and being reprimanded by Pierce, Israel does the unthinkable in objection to Pierce’s reprimand. He exchanges privileged information on another of the firm’s clients for a $100,000 reward leading to an arrest in a murder case from local law enforcement.
Again, there are two ways to understand this. One is to say that Pierce was being unfair to Israel by limiting his power within the firm. Furthermore, it demonstrates that a black man cannot make it in the white, privileged system, so the only answer is to subvert the system and begin operating outside of it.
On the other hand, it could be equally argued that Israel is looking a gift horse in the mouth. In Pierce’s law firm, Israel earned a solid salary as a junior man. He was given the opportunity to work on civil rights cases within the criminal courts, which was clearly his passion. Instead of learning how to work within the system and taking advantage of his opportunities, Israel chooses to once again subvert it. When he doesn’t get what he wants, Israel is wont to cry “racism” and seek revenge instead of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Then Revenge Turns on Israel
Ironically and tragically, Israel’s protest turns out to be all for naught. Pierce quickly chooses to forgive Israel instead of firing him for an egregious violation of the firm’s policies. As if to add insult to injury, Pierce offers to help Israel pursue his sweeping civil rights ideas legally. Finally, under Pierce’s leadership the firm restructures their hourly billing to begin a pro bono arm that is placed under Israel’s direction.
All of these fortuitous events follow Israel’s petty protest of being reprimanded. Israel’s feelings of guilt over his crime then mount to unbearable proportions. The scenes following this good fortune are reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tell Heart.” The muffled beating of the “vulture-eyed” man’s heart begins for Israel just as the madman from Poe’s tale, with a deafening ringing in the ears as he sits with a new love interest at supper. His heinous deed is catching up with him.
Israel is summoned to the county lock-up to represent a certain man. As the door slowly opens, his face falls in fear. It is the man he betrayed for the $100,000 reward. Make no mistake, the man is not looking for counsel in his capital case. He is looking for revenge.
Israel’s existential crisis, the case of “Roman J. Israel, Esq. vs Himself,” is now in full bloom. Does he protest until the system breaks, or learn to forgive and reform the system? Several times throughout the film we see Washington’s character staring, with great angst, at a portrait of one of his civil rights heroes, Bayard Rustin. The picture contains one of Rustin’s quotes: “Be enraged at injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.”
Israel is being destroyed by what he perceives as injustice. The question driving the audience to madness is in full sympathy with our man Israel. On three significant occasions in the film, Israel is branded as “crazy.” On each occasion, his response is, “I’m not crazy.”
This recalls, “True, nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say I am mad?” from “The Tell-Tell Heart.” Israel is the very definition of madness, and so are we as the audience. Sadly, just as the day of reckoning came for the madman in Poe’s chilling tale, so it comes for our madman, Roman J. Israel, just as surely as it will come to us. It is a question we cannot avoid.
Israel Wins His Case Against Himself
His law firm eventually discovers Israel’s crime, but that concern is miniscule compared to his mortal danger from the murderous criminal who seeks revenge. In the case of “Roman J. Israel, Esq. vs Himself.” Israel won decisively.
Israel is the consummate protestor, the savant lawyer who can quote entire tax codes from memory, the one who will transform the American legal system into one of true justice. “Himself” is the one who wanted to simply forgive either real or perceived injustices and attempt to seek dialogue and reconciliation.
Washington’s character, at his core, wanted healing between himself and others, but his rage against injustice ultimately destroyed him. The murderer upon whom Israel informed said it best: “You are breaking your own law, and I want to see you pay for that.” The “law” Israel broke was Rustin’s wise advice: he allowed his rage at injustice to destroy him.
The name “Israel” means “struggles with God,” and it seems the creators of this film want their audience to struggle with two very important concepts about race relations and life. First, we must always struggle against a system that discriminates based on skin color. We should never take this a given, or become complacent in it. Living in a world where it is harder to make it just because you are black is a world in which no moral person wants to live.
Secondly, the film teaches its audience that if we can no longer trust one another and engage in open and honest dialogue, then our great experiment with freedom is doomed. If a man, even if he is white, cannot be trusted because of his skin color and socio-economic status—moreover, if he cannot be forgiven for his sins—then all will be lost.
The film teaches that while we must heed Malcom’s warnings, we must always embrace Martin’s teleology. The goal must never be to see the once-oppressed become the oppressor. Instead we must embrace Martin’s “dream…that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
That was the dream Roman J. Israel, Esq. forsook and, because of that, betrayed everything he ever stood for. May we never forsake this dream in favor of revenge. May outrage at injustice never destroy this dream. May the “Universal Court of All Humanity” find its judgement in favor of us on these merits on our day in court.