The film Roman J. Israel Esq. is incredibly frustrating. It has a strong moral question at the core, but it is totally unable to communicate it in a credible way. It is the story of a socially awkward and idealistic criminal defence lawyer, played by Denzel Washington. Roman has been an activist in the 1970s race liberation movement. He has never defended a case in court and lacks the skills to do so. He’s at odds with a society where the law is administered through a profit-making industry, which is blind to principle. He’s ultimately defeated because he cannot adapt enough to be part of the world, and, at the same time, falls for the seduction of money. The plot is contrived with things happening just to make a point.
The main weakness is the characterisation of Roman. Had it not been for the really great sensitivity and garb of Denzel Washington, Roman would have been little more than the stereotypical Hollywood genius: scruffy, obsessive, and with a great memory. He speaks in – what Hollywood writers think as – academic political language, but it’s just bad writing. Roman doesn’t speak the language of the 1970s liberation movements. He’s supposed to be passionate but he mostly blabbers meaningless sentences with no conviction.
The most cringing point comes when Roman gives a speech arguing for the significance of protest and gets into a row with a feminist who feels patronised when Roman tells a guy to give up his seat for the woman. The incident is supposedly trying to tell us that Roman is old-fashioned and is not familiar with contemporary equality issues, but it only shows how clueless the writer is. There have been significant debates since the 1970s internal to feminism, ‘liberation movements’, and identity politics that could have been used. For instance, instead of a petty discussion on manners, there could have been a row on radical action. That would have shown different ways of thinking and different ‘positionalities’. That would require a writer with a smidge of familiarity with these debates, Dan Gilroy ain’t that.
It would have been nice to get a sense of the significance of identity politics, given that it is often attacked as divisive ‘grievance politics’. At its core identity politics sought to write in those who had been written out, excluded, or objectified. It was the vindication of the dignity of the Other, those seen from the perspective of ‘the man’ = white men. It was an identity crisis, a way to put into question an understanding of the ‘default human’ as man, white (and middle/upper class, Protestant etc.), and show that the class that had power had shaped the way we all understand reality. It was also an identity crisis in the sense that women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people needed their own stories, their own culture so not to be an ‘add-on’ to the hegemonic story of ‘the man’.
Identity politics was not universalistic because that would have made impossible the questioning of the hegemonic story as well as the recovery of the stories and perspectives of the Other. There are many pitfalls in this process. There will always be those who want to impose their experience and perspective as the authentic ones or consider some features of it as essential. Identity work is messy, but it does not preclude a universalist stand point. Simone de Beauvoir was the philosopher who drew the attention to the process of Othering and named it, but also went beyond it by making the Other part of the self. In Pyrrhus and Cyneas, we are truly free only when others are also free.