In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” writer-director Dan Gilroy teams with up two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington to create the portrait of a layered, complex man whose life has been spent fighting for others’ civil rights. When Gilroy wrote the script on spec, he was vying for Washington to do it — even though he’d never met him, he felt Washington was the only actor who could bring the character to life and says he was inspired to create the role by seeing the spirit of activism of the 1960s and 70s in the current grassroots engagement.
“I wrote this movie for Denzel because of his talent and because Denzel is a man who believes in human dignity and the human spirit. Knowing who Denzel is in real life, he brings that part of himself to this character.” In the drama, which dives into the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a turbulent series of events ensue that will put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test. With his life in upheaval, he begins to question everything he thought he believed in.
“Roman’s self-sacrifice and idealism have taken a toll. He makes a choice with life-altering ramifications,” shares Gilroy. “Coming to grips with that, making peace with it, applying the same principles to himself he applies to others, that’s the essence of the film.”
Although Gilroy, who made his directorial debut in 2014 with “Nightcrawler“ wrote the film, he credits Denzel who doubles as producer with creating the character — including his signature ’70s-style and both collaborated for a year before cameras rolled. During pre-production, Gilroy and Washington would meet in a recreation of Roman’s apartment set, talking about the script, music and other aspects of Roman’s life that would help Washington create the character.
“If Denzel didn’t do it, I was gonna put it aside,” said Gilroy, the screenwriter of Hollywood spectacles like “Kong: Skull Island” and “The Bourne Legacy,” “I sent it to Denzel shortly after he did ‘Fences,’ and then we had a very long lunch and we decided to do it.”
“Roman J. Israel, Esq” releases in limited theaters on November 17 and expands wide November 22.
Samantha Ofole-Prince is an entertainment journalist who covers industry-specific news. Follow her on twitter @SamanthaOfole.