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The Real Deal

Denzel Washington passes on the Hollywood star scene for the quiet pleasures of work and family.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 3)

Washington served as executive producer for "Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream," an Emmy Award-nominated documentary for TBS that also turned into a learning experience for him. "I went to Atlanta and met with Mr. Aaron. He's just a living legend. I found out that he had all these death threats as he approached Babe Ruth's [career home run] record. A lot of people didn't want him to break the record. He received 900,000 pieces of mail in one year and about 120,000 of them were hate mail.

"Right now we're working on a documentary about photographer Gordon Parks. I'm excited about that because a lot of people don't know that much about him. About how prolific he is. He's written many books; the most popular was A Man and His Camera. He directed Shaft. He was one of the first, if not the first, big successful black magazine photographers. He's somebody who has a story to tell and I like having the opportunity to share him with people. He is just a great man."

The opportunity to tour the galleries of the Getty Center while some of the art was still being hung brought out an almost childlike curiosity in Washington. He had questions about the lighting, the architecture, the security, the colors, the gardens.

At the end of the tour, Washington was clearly moved. "I loved getting in that tram [that takes museum-goers up the steep hill to the museum]. I didn't think I was gonna love it, but it was obviously necessary. It was one of the smartest things they did, because you're forced into a different environment first. You're forced to share it with everyone else, which is good. Especially in Los Angeles, where everybody has their own little cocoon: their car. You have to abandon your cocoon and get in this communal thing that takes you up the hill with this beautiful, panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin that we all share. I loved the stone. And I liked the feeling of what this place is all about. It's not just a museum. It's not a billion-dollar tribute to Getty and his paintings. It feels like it's for anybody and everybody who wants to come. It feels like it's for the kids from South Central or Sylmar, and it's just as much for them as it is for the privileged. It's gonna change the city in a lot of ways. It will give a bit of strength to L.A. as a cultural destination as well."

He pauses a beat, looks around at Richard Meier's stunning and sensual architecture, and laughs. "Sounds like I'm working for them, huh?" Walking around the grounds he recalls, "My mother took us to see the Mona Lisa when it came to New York. I remember the lines being 60 times around the block. I remember the excitement. I've had that feeling, like seeing the Louvre for the first time, or seeing a painting that I had always seen in a book. It was exciting to be so close to these paintings. I can't get over the fact that you can stand next to them and breathe on them. They're all so precious and we're all so close to them."

Sitting down by a reflecting pool as the sun sets behind the Malibu Hills and the light just starts to fade, he changes his tone, talking about The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, one of the charitable causes that he publicly supports, and why he feels that this work is so important.

"In the inner city, so many of the heroes these young men see are people on the wrong side of the law. And that's partly my fault. If people like myself or doctors or lawyers who make a couple of dollars then leave the community, they don't get a chance to see us. Young kids today don't have good influences. They see the guy making $3 an hour at McDonald's. Or they see the guy driving the Mercedes with $20,000 in his pocket. They don't see their father or their mother enough because they are both working to support the family.

"Now, I used to go down to the corner to go to the store, but I didn't have to worry about fighting and getting killed or being in a gang. I walked down and walked back. A lot of these kids, especially down in South Central, can't do that. They can't go down to the store without running into the 63rd Street Crips. Now, you're a part of it, or you're the enemy. Day in and day out--this is everyday now. Now what are you gonna do? After a while, with a little bit of despair, they can catch you on a bad day. It could be like, 'Damn, my dad's not around, let me just go with them this one time.' Now we cut to six months later and I'm shooting a movie at the prison in Chino and there's that guy and he says to me 'D, man, I just went with them this one time.' Everybody in prison has a story and maybe his story is true. Maybe he did go with them only that one time." Washington's commitment is an attempt to head off "that one time."

"I believe in the Boys Clubs because I grew up in them. The first commercial I did was with the actual director of the club I went to. I don't want to make a big deal about this, because I'd be setting myself up for a big fall, but either you're here or you're there. You're either part of the problem or you're a part of the solution and you can't turn back. You know the difference. And you also know how good it makes you feel. I know I'm here helping you, but trust me, it's helping me a whole lot more."

Slightly uncomfortable about being portrayed as another do-good celebrity, he shifts the conversation back to his work. The two films he stars in this year are illustrations of his artistic as well as spiritual evolution. "That's the feeling I have about the movies I do now. What good is it doing? Is there a way I can turn it into a story, into a lesson, into something positive, into a healing, into a growth for the viewer? If it hit me that way, hopefully I can interpret that so it will hit them that way. If not, what's the point, especially in this day and age we're in. Either you're doing something for goodness' sake or for evil's sake. You can't just continue to walk around with the blinders on and hurt people and say, 'Well, it's not hurting them that bad, plus I'm getting all of mine. Let me do this last one.' Part of why I chose to do Fallen was because of the pull and tug of good and evil. I think the battle goes on. There's no doubt. I think that struggle plays out on a daily basis. [My character] John Hobbes was just a soldier in that battle. The whole war wasn't going to be won and lost on that day."

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