By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
Denzel Washington is back this holiday season in a film that to me is an ode to “old skool.” Washington stars as Roman J. Israel, Esq., in a title role that tells the story of a criminal defense attorney who for nearly 20 years has been comfortable staying in the background, while the owner/senior partner of the Los Angeles law firm, who is also an esteemed civil rights activist, appeared in court and presented cases before the judge. After the senior attorney takes ill and is put on life support, Roman is forced to show up in court. He has no social skills, and he is really out of place in the courtroom and in the decade in which the film is set. His attire hearkens back to the 70s, along with the ring tone on his cell phone that chimes Eddie Kendricks’ 1973 Keep on Truckin.’
It is assumed that Roman has been making enough money to sustain himself in his tiny, darkened apartment, where he scarfs down peanut butter sandwiches. When he first appears in court, he discounts a directive by the legal secretary to just ask for a continuance. Instead, since he is more concerned and committed to overall criminal justice reform, he asks for a bail hearing and later blows this opportunity when he aggressively rejects the plea bargain that the district attorney is offering for his client. This act opens up a can of worms and thrusts Roman into the morass that he views as an unjust legal system, with odds stacked against people of color.
Faced with no compensation and the eventual death of the senior attorney, Roman is compelled to accept a job with the smooth talking, Brooks Brothers suit wearing George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell. George is a friend of the law firm and has been hired to close out the old cases. He recognizes the expertise that Roman can bring to his own law firm and offers him a job. Roman begrudgingly accepts, because the job interviews that he has been taking lately have reaped no results. He is just out of place. However, his legal mind is so sharp and on point that he can’t be ignored.
The misstep with the original case that Roman presented in court, which involved the murder of a shopkeeper, leads to a malpractice suit against George’s firm and the further disdain and he and his long-time attorneys have for Roman. This death of an inmate who had been locked up without justification also leads Roman to come face to face with the real murderer. As Roman tries to present this new case and deal with the backlash from his new co-workers, he is caught up in a moral dilemma after he accepts reward money to find the shopkeeper’s murderer.
There is certainly a conflict of interest, but Roman is too busy spending the $100,000 that he has received on luxury items like caramel bacon donuts from the specialty bakery and just sitting on the beach, basking in the sunlight. He also rents out a unit in a boutique apartment building. Soon he learns that his life has been threatened, and even though he is working on an extended legal brief that would shine a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system, he must be concerned about his well-being and those on the street who are looking to take his life. In the midst of it all, he finds solace and slight companionship in an advocate working at a free law clinic. He also experiences a first date and a first kiss, both of which had previously been elusive. Unfortunately, Roman’s goals of helping to make it better for criminal detainees that would come before the court in his jurisdiction are never realized. And he pays a grand price for sticking his feet in unfamiliar territory.
In an interview that I read online, Washington says that the burden of teaching children right from wrong lies with parents. He also said that the prison system isn’t to blame for mass incarceration. Some would argue the opposite and feel that the decks are stacked against Black males when they face the judge in the courtroom. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” presents Washington in a slow-moving film—there are no sex scenes or high-speed chases. But I was entertained, and audience members can learn quite a bit from Roman’s portrayal of an attorney who lived most of his life on the side of right—only to be tempted in the end with a life-altering decision. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is playing at theatres everywhere.