Denzel Washington’s Next Act Isn’t an Act

There’s a moment in A Journal For Jordan in which Sgt. Charles Monroe King, the late real-life soldier played by Michael B. Jordan, is asked by his girlfriend how a soldier can believe in God. 

“Because I believe in evil,” Charles responds. 

That girlfriend, Dana Canedy (Chanté Adams), tells me that that moment really happened, and it was important to her to get it into the movie. It was a deeply intimate moment (she also asked him if he’d ever killed anyone in action, a question he did not answer) from a deeply intimate movie, based on her bestselling memoir of the same name. It details the story of how Canedy met and fell in love with King, who then spent months writing a journal of life advice for his infant son while he was deployed in Iraq. He was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006. The journal would be his son’s only connection to his father. 

It’s a deeply personal story, and not an easy one to relinquish to a filmmaker to be sanded, squished and edited into a Hollywood narrative. But when asked if she was scared about turning her story over to a filmmaker, she shakes her head. “It would’ve been,” she acknowledges. “Except for Denzel.” 

Denzel Washington went behind the camera for A Journal for Jordan. Canedy says she’s the “guardian” of King’s legacy and felt very “defensive” about that role, but after sitting with Washington to discuss the movie, she “knew we were in good hands.” 

“Always started the day with prayer,” Washington says of how he ran his set. And not the private sort either, as he would gather the performers and crew ahead of shooting to pray over the day together as a group before filming. He says the habit transformed the movie. “There’s all kinds of little miracles that you run into that you didn’t anticipate,” he says. 

And he doesn’t just mean miracles on the movie set. He means in life. 

Miracles

Washington was raised by Pentecostal minister Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. His father died in 1991 and his mother passed away just a few months ago. Before she died, Washington vowed to spend the rest of his life making her and God proud. He’s 66 years old. He has achieved a great deal. He’s ready to use his achievements to give back, and to model a certain way of living. He wants his faith to be a measurable, demonstrable part of his life. Canedy says that was part of why she knew he was the right person to handle A Journal for Jordan.

“If you have faith, then have faith,” he explains. “It’s easy to say, harder to do. And you do forget.” 

It took a great deal of faith for Washington to board his other big movie of 2021, Joel Coen’s Macbeth in which he co-stars opposite Coen’s wife Frances McDormand. Washington is terrific in the role, of course, and Shakespeare is no stretch. He cut his teeth in the title role of Othello while at Fordham University and attended graduate school at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. 

That training set Washington on the path known to all today, but his work has been just as defined by his faith as it has by his training. “Didn’t always know how it would,” he says. “But just being thankful and having an attitude of gratitude, as they say.” 

The Craft

Washington isn’t yet as well known for directing as he is for acting, but he’s hoping to shift his focus. He’s grown more interested in filmmaking— providing opportunities to other actors who haven’t attained his living legend-y status. He speaks about the craft of making a movie with great relish, getting visibly excited when asked about the process. 

“Editorially, a movie will tell you what it doesn’t want,” he says. He talks about a shot early on in the movie, when Jordan’s King picks Adams’ Canedy up to take her for a drive. It’s their first time alone together, and they’re nervous. Washington lets the camera linger on Adams’ face as she attempts to size this man up. It’s a long moment with no dialog — the sort of beat a less confident director would feel compelled to interrupt with a gag or even just a different shot. But Washington was an actor first, and he says that experience has shaped how he makes movies. 

He speaks of his actors with great love. Jordan has “a quality about him, a gentleness, a sweetness.” He and his co-star Adams have “chemistry together that just comes across on the screen.” 

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“The audience knows what’s going to happen,” he says. “They don’t know how. So to see the two of them fall in love and to laugh, to have rough days too, and we take the ride with them, even though we kind of know where we’re going. You hire the right actors. That’s where it starts.”

It’s refreshing to hear a director this insistent on giving others credit — who only emphasizes his interest in getting out of the way of filmmaking. It underscores his interest in a new chapter of his career — one of empowering others.

“You let them do what they do,” he continues. “We take our time, you know? In this fast food society, it is old fashioned, in a sense. And you have to invest in them to feel what you feel in the last part of the film.” 

The Spotlight

Canedy and Washington are together for our conversation. They joke a little about who is more intimidating to for a journalist to talk to — Washington the actor or Canedy, who is now the senior vice president of Simon & Schuster. 

“They’re intimidated by you!” Washington says to Canedy, laughing. “Not me!” 

(Reader, I was intimidated by them both). 

It’s interesting to watch Washington living out what he says he wants to do: elevate others and push the spotlight onto them. This “attitude of gratitude” is not easy for anyone to come by, but it’s clear that Washington’s commitment to have faith is working. After all, what could be a better attitude to bring to telling someone else’s story than having humility about your own? Believing in evil may help serve as evidence of God, but so does goodness. 

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