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Oscar Nominated Film Review: "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a movie that's up for an Academy Award for Best Actor for Denzel Washington who plays the titular role. The movie is about a civil rights attorney who is extremely driven by his principles who gets broken down by a broken system, and he's pretty much the personification of our broken legal system. And I actually looked at this before we watched it and saw that it didn't have very good reviews or hadn't been received well by critics. It has 6.2/10 on IMBD score, 49% Rotten Tomato score, 58% on Metacritic, and Roger Ebert’s website gave it a one out of four stars. I'm not really sure why because I thought it was an excellent movie. Mark what did you think?

 

Mark says

I wasn't aware that it had bad reviews. We had seen advertising before it came out last year and just didn't have the opportunity to see it in the theater and decided that we should try to watch it before the Academy Awards to sort of look at it on the merits of Denzel's performance, and I was overall overall impressed with it. And one of the things that stuck in my head is we had just recently reviewed “Molly's Game,” and there is a certain formula to stories like this where the character steps outside their comfort zone, takes on something that is maybe morally questionable, have a rise to power, are confronted with their mistakes, have a fall, and then the moral is usually something to the effect of “Don't chase after things that you shouldn't want.” There's a certain level to which you should not step outside your social caste and all that. And so this follows that formula in a lot of ways but without the clunky voice over and with the protagonist that you genuinely care about because he genuinely cares about the people he's trying to help.

 

Candice says

I feel like as far as the story goes it's a story where each character represents an archetype. You see these two extremes in Maya, the wide-eyed activist attorney that he once was who's trying to fight the system and she's living in poverty. There was a purity and of the love of the law and money be damned. And then you saw Colin Farrell's character who is described as drowning in the shallow end. And he was inspired by the Roman’s partner who had a heart attack at the beginning, and he still had a glimmer of hope of wanting to do the right thing but just couldn't get past the money. And then you have Roman who's very much in the middle of those two extremes basically being torn apart by the inability to just purely be a lawyer who fights for good because that doesn't pay bills.

 

Mark says

I think probably the biggest shame of the ratings that you read off a second ago for this film is that the film describes a very pertinent reality to our generation what we're experiencing. You had pointed out while you were watching the film that it was an experience you had the publishing world, and I had that experience when I was in college and I worked in commercial banking.

And it's when they are hand out brochures to the lawyers at the at the new firm that Roman is working at, and in the brochures they're talking about the fee structure and what you're supposed to do when people object and want to walk out and not pay exorbitant amounts of money for the defense of their loved ones. And then you see a scenario where Roman is in a room with somebody who's who's got someone they love who's looking at jail time and he does this hard sell on them, and it is the reality of the commercial capitalist world in which we live. That's you. You're gonna take these jobs where they want you to sell something to somebody that maybe doesn't need what you have to sell. And you're looking at a question of your own ability to retain the job and survive versus your principles of what you think is questionable.

Roman going through that journey is what all of us do every morning when we get up and go to work and do our jobs. We have to look at the principles versus the machine, and the movie definitely pits him and Colin Farrell against each other early on as the principled man versus the man in love with money: how they dress, the car that Colin Farrell drives, the place that he works, the use of the computers and technology, and all of that is to create this image of disparity between the two of them based on their principles. And then to watch it clash and to see what happens. So I feel like if people watch this film and didn't catch that or understand that, it's a shame to me because it's very pertinent.

 

Candice says

I also think one of the possible shames of this movie is that if you're not already aware of the issues and the downfalls of our legal system and you weren't 100% paying attention to the speech that Roman gives about what his life's work is and about how he's trying to make it so that we have a right to trial again and that our entire judicial system goes against the Constitution because 95% of cases are push towards plea deals because of fear of a horribly punitive response.

 

Mark says

It's too expensive to fight in court or if you fight and lose you will have a much worse sentences than if you took the plea.

 

Candice says

I think that if you don't understand that that's who Roman is and that's what's wrong with our system that maybe you do think it's just a movie about a man who turned to money. I thought what he did was illegal but more morally questionable because it's not like the guy hadn't killed somebody in an armed robbery.

 

Mark says

So here's my take on that. I'm not going to spoil it but I'm going to talk about his the change in his character arc throughout the movie and there's two things that I felt like it referenced. One is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which is about a man who becomes part of the political system and is very disillusioned once he gets involved and he sees all of the things going on, and when that movie was made Washington wasn't even like it is now.

But still he has a disillusioning moment. It's a beautiful film, and there's a scene where he's inspired by a statue of Abraham Lincoln and it fills him with that almost bordering on naive love of America and will to serve his fellow man and propels him back in to make a difference and make a change.

So there's a vibe of that. The other sort of reference comes from the tale of Don Quixote and particularly as it's portrayed in “Man of La Mancha” the musical, which is this idea that everybody around this central character sees him differently than he sees himself. Roman sees himself as an activist. He sees himself as a lawyer, and people are balking at that self-identification even though he's got a law degree.

He doesn't typically go in the courtroom at the beginning of the story and you see everybody is trying to keep him in a lane and they look down on him because of how he dresses and how he speaks and he tries to take part in community activism and he gets shot down by young people because he’s kind of old fashioned. There's just a host of these things.

Everybody in the world around him is is trying to make him conform and then that moment in “Man of La Mancha” where they attack him with the mirrors and the mirrors break him where he finally sees himself the way everyone else does. There is that moment in this story where Roman J. Israel finally does see the standard by which he's being judged and accepts it momentarily. And it is sad. It's a very sad thing because there's part of you that wants to keep that retro 60s activist, wearing a dashiki, having a big beautiful afro. Because we missed those people who've made those things.

 

 Candice says

I think the movie so perfectly sets up the how he was corralled into the decision that he made and that he had no other options really. When you looked at all the the pictures he had on his wall, one of them was Angela Davis and she's been in exile for I don't know how long or dead. That's where all of our great civil rights leaders have gone. They're either gone or dead. And so I think he is this dying remnant of a lost era.

 

Mark says

I think that's where his heart was at. That's what he wanted to be. He wanted to make a difference. You know he didn't want be involved in law for money. He even talked about it like a necessary evil.

 

Candice says

Right. But law is entirely money now, and if you don't have the money for an actual attorney, if you're not willing to go into that high rise building and if you go for a public defender, you're going to spend most of your life in prison. If people didn't see this movie as an indictment of our legal system…

 

Mark says

And then the justice system as well.

 

Candice says

Right. That's I meant.

 

Mark says

Yeah I just mean there's a moment where he has a run in with the very first DA that he's talking to. She very pointed as they're going back and forth and he's trying to talk her down on the sentence that she wants to impose on this kid. She says I have a 100% conviction rate, and it's basically telling him “I don't care” because he's trying to talk to her about mitigating circumstances...

 

Candice says

or about the person.

 

Mark says

Yes, he has a name. He made a mistake. He's a young guy. She didn't want to hear it because the legal system and the justice system as they currently stand are faceless. They are about the numbers of convictions that the DA gets. There are people trying to climb up through the ranks to become politicians. It's not really about the individuals anymore. And in several cases you hear the district attorneys used the term "the people," that they represent the people. It's ironic to hear it because none of the people's voices are being heard. I think there's some really deep things that require a conversation that this movie touches on.

 

Candice says

I just feel like the movie didn't attempted to be too heavy handed and focused more on the story and Roman Esquire than to actually focus on the system.

 

Mark says

Yeah it's character portrait.

 

Candice says

Right. I get that, I think if you are not already well versed in the problems of the system then you weren't going to get that. And that it’s not just a story about a man.

 

Mark says

Who probably just seems stupid, and his decisions just seem arbitrary.

 

Candice says

Right. I think the more of your own knowledge that you bring to this movie, I think the more enjoyment you get out of it.

 

Mark says

So it's probably safe to say that this was actually probably a much better film than people realize and that society was basically just not ready for it.

 

Candice

Right. They’re like “Eh.”

 

Mark says

That's a shame. That's a damn shame.

 

Candice says

That is a damn shame because like I said I think this was an extremely important movie.

 

Mark says

I thought Denzel's performance was good. I felt like he took this on because he understood it.

 

Candice says

He believed in it.

 

Mark says

There was everything in his portrayal through the arc of the character that tells me he knows the A to Z of the character. He knows where he started and where he ends up and throughout the movie he's in touch with that the whole time. So I felt like his performance was really good.

 

Candice says

I also thought he gave a sensitivity to my assumption that that Roman was somewhere on the spectrum, and I thought that his portrayal was extremely sensitive and respectful and he didn't try to play him as robotic because sometimes people do that when they play someone who has autism.

 

Mark says

Yeah. And this is groundbreaking. At the time both “Forrest Gump” and Raymond from “Rain Man” both gave cartoony performances to the point of parody when it came to people on the spectrum, and we've evolved hopefully beyond that to now understand that there's nuance.

 

Candice says

I thought he definitely played it with nuance.

 

Mark says

And maybe being on the spectrum means that you lack certain social cues.

 

Candice says

But he also had an awareness of where his social cues were off.

 

Mark says

Yeah the point where she asks him to speak publicly and he says that's something people advise me against. His self-awareness is endearing, and we can, even if you don't share the awkwardness that he has, understand, and it makes you appreciate the character more that it makes more sense that he doesn't have other options.

 

Candice says

I'm really happy that despite this movie not being well received that people were still able to recognize that Denzel Washington shined in that movie because I really felt like he was the thing that carried it. I cared so much. I was really stressed out through most of the movie because I didn't want anything bad to happen to him, because he's a good man who made an impossible decision. He had that line about “I can't keep doing impossible things for ungrateful people.” That is what he made a career out of, and the minute he stopped doing that, it lead to his downfall. It's a really touching story about lawyers and how hard it is to do the right thing.

 

Mark says

Yeah. One last little ironic bit. I remember back in a couple of years ago Colin Farrell starred in the film “The Recruit,” where he's been recruited for the CIA and he's a very naïve, wide-eyed person being drawn in against his will and he turned into an incredibly deceitful terrible person in that film, and it was very interesting to watch a film where he basically is doing that to Denzel Washington, who is in many ways is not his peer. It is very interesting to watch an actor in another role where he’s changing Denzel’s character into someone he did not want to be. And I found that very intriguing.

 

Candice says

Well I also think I think the saddest thing about the movie is that because of one interaction where Colin Farrell's character overreacts and doesn't see the value in who Roman is what set everything into motion. And then he eventually apologizes but it's too late at that point.

 

Mark says

Because he had done the damage. I feel again this movie shows, all the higher values, society, legal system, and all of that aside, that we've all had those moments with bosses. We've all had a boss yell at us for something and treat us as as less than our personal value and we’ve known in our heads that they were wrong but still had to swallow it because you needed to pay rent.

 

Candice says

I think this is a beautiful movie about the working poor.

 

Mark says

And I feel like no matter what you do, if you work at McDonald's or whether you are breaking six figures doing something executive in your life, whatever you're doing, you can connect with this film in that moment because that is an experience most people have.

 

Candice says

Either you're selling your soul for money or you don't have any money. I think this movie perfectly depicted that.

Mark and Candice

Mark and Candice

Sometimes the best part of reading an article online is engaging in a conversation in the comment section. However, discussions involving opposing points of view between strangers can devolve into a toxic environment. So what if these conversations were had between two people who loved each other?

At Cheek to Geek, our contributors consist of a diverse group of couples who are steeped in geek and popular culture. Our reviews reflect the back-and-forth, opposing or concurring, debates that geeks are notorious for having. But our founders, Mark and Candice Roma, have always felt that the love and respect felt for certain fandoms should carry over into the way we discuss them. Candice hopes that by modeling fruitful and productive discourses in our blogs, vlogs, and podcasts that we can show our readers the value in having disparate opinions and that differing perspectives don’t have to lead to hostile confrontation. “Mark and I have been together almost nine years, and every time we go see a movie, read book, go to a new restaurant, or see something awesome, we immediately ask what the other one thought. We don’t always agree, but having a conversation with my husband is my favorite part of experiencing something new.”

Although Cheek to Geek focuses on the opinions of specific couples, Mark believes that our vision for the site will extend far beyond that. “Ultimately the goal of art is to communicate, and the goal of communication is to build a community.” Our mission is to create a positive, inclusive, and safe environment for the appreciation and discussion of popular art in all its forms. 

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