Denzel Washington sometimes feels like the personification of the old maxim about how African-Americans must be “twice as good to get half as much.” His last big role was his masterful, self-directed performance in 2016’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences,” but the best actor of his generation remains the best whether he’s playing drug kingpin Frank Lucas in “American Gangster” or recreating the Yul Brynner role in last year’s “Magnificent Seven” remake. In an industry where legends like De Niro and Pacino increasingly sleepwalk to paychecks, he simply does not slum it.
All this is to say that when I heard Washington would be playing a lawyer on the autism spectrum in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” I wasn’t as nervous as this kind of casting normally makes me. Playing a disabled character is notorious as a cynical fast-track to awards attention, but Washington is the last actor on earth who would need to resort to stunts to get his performance noticed.
Israel is never explicitly identified in the film as autistic. A reference to him as “a bit of a savant” is the closest we get but Washington has identified him as such doing press for the film. Israel, an old hand at civil rights law who’s handled behind-the-scenes work for decades while his partner takes on court appearances, seems like an anachronism in every way, from his Uncle Junior-style glasses to his boxy houndstooth coat over a sweater vest to his flip phone. It’s a smart move; where lesser actors might try to convey Israel’s autism simply through tics of speech and movement, Washington uses these retro touches to create the impression of a man who’s simply too busy doing his own thing to adapt to the world around him.
This becomes even clearer when a heart attack kills Israel’s partner. Israel must handle the court appearances after his partner’s death, leading to him being held in contempt almost immediately. This is a minor plot point but it helps set up one of the film’s central conflicts: Israel is a born lawyer because of his commitment to justice and attention to detail. For example, Israel has memorized the California Penal Code. However, his rigid sense of right and wrong leaves him ill-suited to the loopholes and compromises that come with the job. That aspect of law is personified in George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a big shot plea-bargain specialist who takes on the remaining open cases from Israel’s firm, before hiring Israel.
Washington does an excellent job of portraying the culture clash of a guy like Israel at a firm like Pierce’s, huddling in a corner or hunching over the kitchen counter while his new colleagues high-five and make domestic violence jokes. It’s after this point that the film begins to meander a little. After making a major moral compromise, Israel finds his fortunes improving rapidly and begins to reassess the values that have kept him friendless and cash-strapped.
On some level, it’s a welcome choice. Autistic people’s difficulties with compromise and breaking “the rules” can be deeply rooted, but they’re not completely set in stone. It’s refreshing to see a movie acknowledge that. However, once it has, the script by director Tony Gilroy doesn’t seem sure of where to go with it. That said, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is something I’ve wanted out of fictional depictions of autism for a while: A character who has autism and a distinct personality, not simply the one instead of the other. Israel is autistic, to be sure, but he’s also a bit of a romantic, a single-minded activist and a music nerd. Like much of Washington’s work, it’s an A-plus performance in a movie that’s a solid B, and if we must be played by neurotypical actors, it might as well be actors like him.