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The Complex Character Of 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'


The best defense money can buy is a cynical way to describe high-priced criminal defense lawyers, but it's not inaccurate. "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is a new movie that stars Denzel Washington and looks at what happens when a lawyer who's worked in the background of criminal defense for 30 years is suddenly thrust out front. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team has this.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Roman J. Israel has been a civil rights attorney for almost three decades. He's poured his life into a two-man firm that is famous for its civil rights litigation. But when a senior partner has a fatal heart attack early in the film, Roman discovers their firm is bankrupt - too much pro bono work. The partner's niece explains they'll close the firm and pay off its debts. Desperate to keep the place afloat, Roman has other ideas.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) I'll take over.

AMANDA WARREN: (As Lynn Jackson) No, you're not capable of continuing the practice.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) But I'll take over because in the architecture of this firm, I am a pillar.

BATES: Roman's deceased partner has been the firm's charismatic front man, its public image, celebrated for his defense of the downtrodden. Roman, an introvert, with an encyclopedic knowledge of case law has toiled in backroom obscurity. He's stuck in a mid-'70s time warp. His jacket has huge lapels. He listens to pre-hip-hop R&B on an old cassette player. He has an old school afro. As Roman, Denzel Washington appears not as an easily identifiable hero or heartthrob or villain but as a vulnerable oddball. Washington describes his character this way.


WASHINGTON: He has core beliefs and values. And he wants to continue to fight the good fight. He doesn't understand or realize that maybe he's not capable.

BATES: Director Dan Gilroy believes Roman's dedication to legal activism has extracted a price.


DAN GILROY: He describes at one point - he says, I've never left the frontlines. And he said, that cost me my family, and it cost me all these things. So I always thought it was by choice.

WASHINGTON: You know, I think that there's a reason he's alone and that he's a loner, that he wears the same clothes and lives the same way for the last 30 years. And I don't necessarily think it's by choice. I think it's who he is.

BATES: Brilliant but aggravating, intense and socially awkward, Roman is something of a legal savant. He knows every aspect of the California Penal Code by heart, but his presentation could use some refining. Here he alienates a prosecutor he wanted to talk into a possible plea bargain.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Then we'll drop the assault and kidnapping. And we'll reduce murder one to manslaughter, voluntary, 10 years.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) Involuntary, three to five.

WERTHEIMER: (As character) Voluntary manslaughter, 10 years. It's a good deal.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) It's an enema of sunshine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You know what? I don't have time for this.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) Well, I'm sorry for taking a nanosecond off of your assembly-line-rubber-stamping existence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) The people withdraw their offer.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) I don't care. What the - hello?

BATES: At one point, Roman is recruited to work for a high-priced defense firm. He hates the idea. But he desperately needs the money. So he's determined to do well while he does good. But he makes choices that get him tangled up in those double intentions. Further complicating his re-entry into the world is the fact that the world has changed in the years since Roman began practicing - something that's painfully obvious when he gives a talk to a group of young idealists.


WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) I'm sorry, excuse me. I see two sisters standing. Why are the sisters standing and the brothers sitting?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) If we want to sit, we can ask.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) Well, you ladies got to speak up for yourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) This ain't 40 years ago.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) There's no statute of limitations on chivalry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) That's gendered and sexist.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) And polite.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) And patronizing.

WASHINGTON: (As Roman J. Israel) And polite.

BATES: Yeah, it's complicated. And Roman J. Israel is a complicated character in complicated circumstances that we won't spoil by describing them here. Director Dan Gilroy says he hopes audiences get this from his movie.


GILROY: It's not a call to action, but it's a call to look at what you believe in. And if you believe in something, to step out - now is the time.

BATES: Maybe even if you're not polite. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.