Denzel Washington, Man on Fire

Dana Scruggs for The New York Times.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written a fascinating portrait of Denzel Washington and his upcoming film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

As has been my custom for the last 30 years, I am most intrigued by elements of religion in pop culture – and Washington is one of the finest examples of interlacing his heartfelt faith with his meticulous artistic talent. Here are four stand-out segments from Dowd’s 3,500 piece.

• He had just put the final touches on a film he directed, “A Journal for Jordan,” the true story of the romance between Dana Canedy, a former New York Times reporter and editor, and Sgt. Charles Monroe King, a soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, after meeting their infant son only once. It stars Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams and also opens widely on Christmas Day.

“It’s just a beautiful story of loss and love,” Mr. Washington said, “a story about real heroes and sacrificing, men and women who have given their lives so that we have the freedom to complain.” (The star, who has played a policeman more than a dozen times, recently made similar comments of respect for cops who put their lives on the line.)

He said that before his 97-year-old mother died a few months ago, he promised her that he would “attempt to honor her and God by living the rest of my days in a way that would make her proud. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I’m more interested in directing because I’m more interested in helping others,” he said. “What I do, what I make, what I made – all of that – is that going to help me on the last day of my life? It’s about, Who have you lifted up? Who have we made better?

“This is spiritual warfare. So, I’m not looking at it from an earthly perspective. If you don’t have a spiritual anchor you’ll be easily blown by the wind and you’ll be led to depression.”

Sounding like his father, a Pentecostal minister who died in 1991 – “That’s what got my father, he couldn’t give up the meat and fried foods” – Mr. Washington asked me: “Have you read the Bible? Start with the New Testament, because the Old Testament is harder. You get caught up in the who-begot-who-begot-who thing.”

• “I’m a God-fearing man,” he said. “I try not to worry. Fear is contaminated faith.”

• When he accepted the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 2019, it was clear that he was getting more publicly spiritual. He called himself a vessel of God and played an old video of his late father-in-law talking about how we must love and care for one another. He talked disdainfully about the “Twitter-tweet-meme-mean world that we’ve created” and said we’d better do our best to “turn this thing around” for young people.

He continued this theme at our coffee.

“The enemy is the inner me,” he said. “The Bible says in the last days — I don’t know if it’s the last days, it’s not my place to know — but it says we’ll be lovers of ourselves. The No. 1 photograph today is a selfie, ‘Oh, me at the protest.’ ‘Me with the fire.’ ‘Follow me.’ ‘Listen to me.’

“We’re living in a time where people are willing to do anything to get followed. What is the long or short-term effect of too much information? It’s going fast and it can be manipulated obviously in a myriad of ways. And people are led like sheep to slaughter.”

In heaven, he said, “there are going to be two lines, the long line and the short line, and I’m interested in being in the short line.”

He advises me to read The Daily Word, an inspirational message that has an app. (As I write, the daily word is “compassion.”)

“You have to fill up that bucket every morning,” he said. “It’s rough out there. You leave the house in the morning. Here they come, chipping away. By the end of the day, you’ve got to refill that bucket. We know right from wrong.”

As he left, he turned back to remind me: “Get that Daily Word.”

• Maureen Dowd: Growing up in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, you saw your share of glossolalia.

Denzel Washington: Don’t play with God. Don’t play with God. You hear what I said? Don’t play with God. You heard what I said? Don’t play with God.


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