Dan Gilroy’s 2017 film Roman J. Israel, Esquire, starring Denzel Washington and still lingering in theaters, has either been critically panned or just plain overlooked.
And yet, its story, particularly in this political moment, stands as an urgent and instructive tale about the rigors of engaging in political action for social change, about the sacrifices of leading a politically committed life, and most importantly about the need to communicate across generations with humility, without righteousness, and with ears open to listening, hearts open to understanding, and eyes trained on the final prize of a humane world and not the pyrrhic victory of political purity.
The particular story Roman J. Israel, Esquire unfolds is one rarely told but crucially necessary, as we live in a culture that offers little guidance and fewer stories that provide models for movement building and that cultivate a political sensibility to prepare one for collective action and committed struggle on the street and in our professions, rather than just for simple individual achievement.
It’s not surprising so many critics overlook the importance of the story. The character Roman J. Israel, a legal activist hanging on as a relic from an earlier political generation who is nonetheless absolutely relevant today, is not a character we are used to seeing; he is unfamiliar and difficult to read, a dinosaur from a Jurassic political era whose extinction has been mis-reported and whose existence is misunderstood.
This film calls on those committed and long-time activists who participated in the past struggles—and may still be going—to find a language in which to speak to a younger generation, just as it also calls on activists from the younger generation to listen and honor the lessons of movements past.
Our current political moment gives Gilroy’s story and Washington’s performance a particularly charged significance. Consider today’s political context:
As a response to Trump’s presidency, 2017 witnessed a diverse and broad-based, if not always cohesive or unified, upsurge in social justice activism and protest, including the memorable and massive nation-wide Women’s March, the March for Science, and the People’s Climate March. These protests, of course, added to an environment of political resistance already energized by the Black Lives Matter movement.
This array of activism, often overtly anti-Trump, with all of its multiple and not necessarily connected parts, has been collected under the umbrella category of the Resistance.
Demographic studies of these upsurges reveal that many of the participants in these protests are new entrants into the arena of political activism lacking not only in political experience but in a knowledge of the radical and progressive traditions that offer models for building and sustaining a movement and its infrastructure and for crafting a new cultural sensibility.
In Gilroy’s film, Israel (Denzel Washington) works behind the scenes as legal genius and workhorse for the face of the firm, William Henry Jackson, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. When Jackson suddenly dies, Israel is cut loose as the firm can no longer sustain itself.
He appears briefly in court representing remaining clients but, unused to litigation, finds his ‘60s legal rhetoric—one that relentlessly impugns and challenges the injustice of the system itself—out of place and quickly dismissed by impatient judges. The court of law is no longer an arena for political causes in which the meaning of justice itself is litigated but rather a site of quick pleas and deals where the accused have no voice.
Then enters George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a self-proclaimed protégé of Israel’s iconic boss who now runs a lucrative profit-driven firm but who nonetheless likes to think of himself as loyal to higher ideals of justice. He tries to hire Israel, whom he sees as something of a legal savant, as Israel remembers every detail of every case he worked on and keeps his records on 3×5 index cards rather than using modern legal software. Israel refuses, seeing working for Pierce as selling out.
At one point in his unsuccessful quest for work, Israel approaches a community law center committed to civil rights advocacy. Israel offers his services to the director, Maya Alston (Carmen Egojo), explaining that he could help “re-align” the practice with the original ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, linking legal activism with political protest and movement building. At first, Alston is a bit offended, defending her work in the center, although she softens, becoming sympathetic to and intrigued by his clearly abundant legal knowledge and political wisdom, even as she lets him know she cannot offer him paid work as the center is staffed with volunteers.
As he leaves, one of Alston’s co-workers calls Israel a freak. She informs him that both of them stand on Israel’s shoulders. This moment is a crucial one in the film, spelling out two possible responses from the younger generation—dismissal or a willingness to learn. The film proposes the latter but poses the smug dismissal of the past and disconnection from our radical political traditions as an obstacle to progressive social change.
We see this theme developed again when Alston invites Israel to give a lecture at the center. When he speaks, he has a rapt audience, until he chastises a “brother” in the audience for sitting while some “sisters” are standing. The African American women take him to task for his patriarchal chivalry, which he calls politeness. While Israel has some things to learn to connect with the younger generation, the younger generation here are represented as taking a stance of righteousness as they rudely and disrespectfully run Israel from the room and, in the process, cut themselves off from a meaningful reservoir and legacy of legal activism and grassroots activism.
Alston nonetheless learns from him, as finally does Pierce. Ironically, they learn from Israel just as he is giving up and selling out in his terms so he can make a living, worn out by years of committing himself to the struggle for justice and living on little. He ends of violating the law for a payday through an unscrupulous action he comes to regret.
But before Israel completely disappears, Pierce is able to rescue his briefcase, which contains a massive brief he has spent his career writing to take on the carceral state and the complicity of the justice system in the way it fosters plea-bargaining at the expense of the accused having a voice in the nation’s courtrooms, which are supposed to be an arena for seeking justice, not simply handing out sentences and silencing the criminalized.
In the final scenes, we see Maya leading activist training sessions in the law center and Pierce standing at a clerk’s counter in the Federal Court while the clerk thumbs through the tome of a brief he just handed in, making clear that the hope of our future lies in the very plan that Roman J. Israel lays out. This plan combines progressive legal activism with protest and grassroots movement building, drawing on the wisdom of our political forbears and our radical political traditions. The place for activism is not just in the streets but in our professional lives as well, whether we are wearing suits or sneakers.
The final scene of the movie, that of Pierce waiting at the clerk’s counter in the Federal Court, extends through the credits while the Spinners’ 1973 hit “I’ll Be Around” plays. While Israel is gone at the end of the film, the point is that he is around in the presence of the tradition he represents and the legacy he bequeaths to Pierce and Alston.
The movie is finally about more than an individual; it is about an unfinished legacy and historical process that has yet to resolve itself. Perhaps critics have been disappointed because the movie ends up departing from a typical narrative structure that focuses on an individual life and instead becomes a story about a collective tradition.
In our moment that now is often referred to as the Age of Trump, this collective story of seeking social change becomes crucial for accessing and making fruitful the new activist energies Trump’s malevolence is inspiring.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.