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Denzel Washington wants viewers to look past Macbeth’s race

"We ought to be at a place where diversity shouldn’t even be mentioned, like it’s something special," Washington, who stars in the new film "The Tragedy of Macbeth," said.
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”Apple TV+

Joel Coen’s new film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is putting a diverse spin on the 400-year-old Shakespearean play, with Denzel Washington starring as the infamous Scottish king.

But the Academy Award winner said diversity isn’t the only reason to watch this movie.

“Obviously we are diverse, so I think that’s a great thing,” Washington told NBC BLK at a roundtable with other media outlets. “You know, in my humble opinion, we ought to be at a place where diversity shouldn’t even be mentioned, like it’s something special. These young kids — Black, white, blue, green or whatever — are highly talented and qualified. So that’s why they’re there.”

The film, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+ after a limited run in theaters, also features Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff and Kathryn Hunter as the witches.

This isn’t the first adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy to feature a diverse cast.

Most notably, Orson Welles adapted the play in 1936 with an all-Black cast. Nicknamed the “Voodoo Macbeth,” this retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy moved the story from Scotland to Haiti, where the first and only successful slave revolt against a colonial power took place.

Welles’ “Macbeth” was staged at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, New York, and The New York Times reported that the premiere was “accompanied by Hollywood floodlights and a brass band of eighty pieces.”

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth.
Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth.Apple TV+

Now, more than 80 years later, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” has moved back to Scotland. 

Washington said Coen brings fresh eyes and ears to the play with a minimalist adaptation in black-and-white film. 

“You can’t re-create in theater what Joel did here, just light and sound alone and the space that he leaves for the imagination,” he said.

This opened up the play to more interpretations. 

“I think it’s a good thing that the gloves have been taken off and people tried it in different ways,” he said. “What’s special about Shakespeare? He should be open to interpretation like any other writer.”

Coen retells the story of Macbeth, an ambitious Scottish lord who plots with his wife to murder the king and seize power.

One difference with this adaptation is that the characters are older — which Washington said gives a sense of urgency to the story. 

"This was it. They’re tired. They’re older. They’re like, 'Look, this is our shot, our due, give it to us,'" he said. "Drastic times make for drastic measures. And the clock is ticking."

Readers have long interpreted “Macbeth” as a story about the duality between appearances and reality, free will and fate, good and evil.

But Washington said he doesn’t see his character as a villain or someone driven to madness. Instead, he looked at the circumstances and the information that the words on the script gave him.

“You gotta love what you doing. You think you’re doing it for the right reasons, even if you know it’s for the wrong reasons,” he said, describing what drives his character.