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Denzel Washington film spotlights why 'activism is heroism'

Writer/director Dan Gilroy hopes that viewers of his latest movie "Roman J. Israel, Esq." will start a conversation about the true meaning of being an activist.
Image: Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Denzel Washington stars in "Roman J. Israel, Esq."Glen Wilson / Sony Pictures

In the midst of a contentious political climate and a country divided by racial tensions, writer/director Dan Gilroy has one hope – that viewers of his latest movie "Roman J. Israel, Esq." will understand the valor of activism.

“What I am trying to do is pay homage to those who commit themselves, those who try to make the world a better place,” Gilroy told NBC News during a phone coversation. “There is a price that comes with being an activist. Activism is heroism, particularly given the fact many activists fight and very few people are made aware of their contributions.”

In theatres nationwide Wednesday, the movie, starring Denzel Washington, centers on a civil rights lawyer who thrives off of being in the shadows and poking holes in the injustices of the legal system.

“Roman is a guy who is utterly invisible but a hero,” Gilroy said. “Anyone could walk past him on the street and not give him a second look. He is not anyone that you would take interest in – he gets beat up, he gets mocked. But he is a man who carries justice and fairness in his mind and in his heart.”

Director Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on the set of Roman J. Israel, Esq.Glen Wilson / Sony Pictures

But for someone who has spent their entire career, fighting for others, Roman makes a decision that seemingly contradicts everything he identifies with.

“Without telling the movie, redemption is a big part of it’s ending,” Gilroy said. “Roman spent four decades fighting for what he believes in, only to make a choice that. I hope people will question what drove him to seemingly let go of what he spent a lifetime fighting for.”

At one point during the film, Roman states, “Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” They are familiar words, uttered by the lawyer and social justice activist, Bryan Stevenson during his 2015 TED Talk.

It is no coincidence that Gilroy would have Roman utter those words in the film, as Stevenson has committed himself to the justice system through his organization Equal Justice Initiative.

Gilroy began working on the film at the height of the 2016 presidential election season. After his first film, “Nightcrawler,” he took notice of the political and social climate at the time and thought back to a time in his childhood — the Civil Rights Movement.

People would claim, he said, that issues of racism, injustice, and inequality had been resolved since the 1960’s. Gilroy considers such statements “utter ignorance.”

“This country has never dealt with what I consider to be a fragile issue in a real way. We live in a world right now where people need to stand up for what they believe,” he said. “I remember how, in 1969, the world was on fire for activism. I was 10. Civil Rights. Anti-war. I thought I was entering into that kind of world.”

Dan Gilroy, Carmen Ejogo and Denzel Washington attend a screening of the film in New York.Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

He wondered, "What if someone was 20 in 1969 and never left that world?"

Roman is that person. From the frames of his glasses to his beliefs – he is from a different time.

In one scene, Roman cannot help but to take a moment of pause when he sees two women standing against a column during a talk about police engagement.

“I’m sorry, why are there sisters standing and the brothers sitting?” he asks.

“That’s gendered and sexist,” one woman responds.

“And, and polite,” says Roman, to which the other woman states, “And Patronizing.”

But Roman can’t let it go – “And polite." Times may have changed, but Roman hasn’t.

There are people, Gilroy said, like Romanthat are among us but in many ways live invisible lives. He hopes those that see the film walk away with the spirit of Roman and are able to see the heroes among them.

“We do not understand. We do not understand how the things that they believe in keep them up at night,” he said. “We do not understand what they are contributing. So I hope that the film creates an active dialogue about those that believe in something bigger than themselves and their burdens.”

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