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Roman J. Israel, Esq.
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Roman J. Israel, Esq.

In the ethical drama Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington plays an activist lawyer on the spectrum (Washington used the now-unfashionable word Asperger’s at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere), and the film has been shaped around his character’s every stammer and awkward, dissociative glance. There’s no one else of consequence onscreen: It’s all Denzel all the time. One of Washington’s specialties is cocky fast talk, so it’s like watching a great pitcher take something off his fastball, his wobblers somehow finding the plate. And it’s enjoyable seeing him dig into the mind-set of a man who finds injustice and inequality everywhere and tenaciously clings to the identity (and Afro and wardrobe) he had in the 1960s and ’70s, even when his manner alienates clients, prosecutors, and judges. Roman’s tics and obliviousness to social cues make the legal system seem even less responsive — further beyond the reach of the little guy.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film was the crawly melodrama Nightcrawler, and although his protagonist in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is vastly different, Gilroy has the same theme: corruption. A man who has worked diligently in the shadows for little money, recognition, or gratitude finds a morally bankrupt way of getting richer quick and likes having power for the first time — or at least for the first time in 40 years.

who knows every case and statute in the book by heart — has for years been the “man behind the curtain” for his flamboyant and beloved partner. Then that partner has a stroke and Roman has to enter the “white man’s courtroom.” In his first time before a judge in decades, he gets a $5,000 fine for contempt. What galls Roman — what he has dedicated his life to fighting — is the prosecutorial strategy of overcharging an accused (generally indigent) criminal so that he or she will feel pressured to take a lesser plea, the resulting sentence the same as if the defendant had gone to trial with the appropriate charge and lost. That’s a form of blackmail, of course, and Roman wants nothing less than to make new law. “Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he says. Throwing kids in prison for long sentences all but guarantees that the worst thing they’ve ever done will define them for life.

Duration: 122 min

Release:

IMDb: 6.4

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