Beneath the surface

Baron book takes in-depth look at Denzel Washington’s career

Denzel Washington is more than 1996’s “Sexiest Man Alive” or a pretty face on the screen. Ask Dr. Cynthia Baron, theatre and film. Baron’s latest book, “Denzel Washington,” takes an in-depth look at the actor and his impact on both art and society.

Baron was approached by the British Film Institute (BFI) to write “Denzel Washington” as part of a series it publishes.

“The institute commissioned a book series, designed for academic and general readers, that would reflect upon the wealth of material concerning film stars — found in tabloids, fanzines, star biographies, reception studies, research on celebrity culture and the entertainment industry — and pay special attention to ways in which the actual performances of star actors shape interpretations of individual films and audience impressions about a star’s public image,” Baron explained.

Why Denzel Washington? Baron said that he is unique in many ways, especially in that he is an acclaimed, prestigious star whose public image, critical acclaim, financial success, cultural significance and industry position as Hollywood’s most bankable star are linked to public recognition of his acting ability.

“He is seen as an actor’s actor, and is the only African American in the elite group of actors and actresses who have won two or more Academy Awards,” Baron said. “He has also achieved something no other black actor has done before in being seen by white and black audiences as a romantic leading man, with critics discussing Washington as someone who has changed the concept of classic movie stardom.”   

The actor first came to the attention of viewers as Dr. Philip Chandler in the television series “St. Elsewhere,” which ran from 1982-88. Since then, he has had leading roles in more than 40 films, appeared on Broadway where he won a Tony award, directed films and developed his own production company.

“My biggest challenge in writing this book was finding ways to describe the breadth of Washington’s career,” Baron said. 

Washington’s stardom has defined a moment in American culture and film-media history much in the way the careers of actors Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier influenced prior times, according to Baron.

“Through his substantial acting ability and circumspect approach to Hollywood stardom, Washington has had a significant impact on the images of black men that are circulated in contemporary media,” she observed. 

That impact did not happen by chance.

“Washington and his longtime agent, Ed Limato, made strategic decisions in crafting Washington’s star image throughout his career,” Baron said. From the independent film “Mississippi Masala” to historical biopics like “Cry Freedom” and on to mainstream Hollywood productions like “Philadelphia,” Washington’s roles made the black experience visible. 

Roles were chosen to promote the actor’s high-quality “brand” in the industry.

“I found it extremely interesting that Washington’s star image reflects the complex combination of values embedded in what Trey Ellis has termed the ‘New Black Aesthetic,’ which intertwines Black Nationalist and black bourgeois perspectives, and is historically and ideologically poised between the civil rights generation and the hip hop generation,” Baron said. 

While Baron had included Washington in chapters of earlier books, this is her first book focused on one individual. “The series editors asked me to draft a proposal for a book on Denzel Washington,” she said. “My proposal was accepted, and I then spent the next four years researching and writing the book that now belongs to the BFI Film Stars series.    

“It shares common ground with some of my other works,” she added. “In all instances, the research is designed to illustrate ways in which actors’ creative labor contributes to the meanings and impressions created by films.”

Baron hopes that readers come away with a better sense of acting as a component of film after reading this book.

“My emphasis on screen performance as a meaningful part of cinema is grounded in the view that what appears on screen matters, and that, in contrast to classical film theory, editing is not the single most important aspect of cinema.”

Currently, Baron is making the final revisions on the manuscript for “Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter in American Film and Theatre,” to be published in 2016.    

“I am terrifically excited about this book, which will share 20 years of research about the acting theories and methods that melded stage and screen acting in the first half of the 20th century and transformed American acting as a whole,” she said.