‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ is poignant character-driven legal drama: An interview with writer-director Dan Gilroy

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At its core, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is an underdog story, that of a character who must overcome outrageously restrictive circumstances in order to achieve his ultimate goals. Framed as a legal drama surrounding a civil rights activist and serving as an extraordinary showcase for its central performance by Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” turns its simple underdog story into something much more complex. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” brings to life one of the most memorable characters in recent cinema while tackling the complex current state of civil rights activism in the United States.

The film begins by introducing us to the title character, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), a driven but socially inept middle-aged criminal defense attorney working for a small firm in the heart of Los Angeles. After discovering that his longtime partner has suffered a massive heart attack and that soon the old firm will close, Roman takes up a position in a larger, corporate-style law firm run by defense attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell). The rest of the film follows Roman’s work on cases as he deals with his own personal struggle between pursuing unequivocal justice and falling into the temptation of becoming another corporate sellout.

Roman’s story is one that is integral to the current political climate and conversation surrounding civil rights and the criminal justice system. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Gilroy elaborated on his extensive research with civil rights and activist attorneys prior to developing the script. He focused on their role in a justice system in which the housing of inmates is unfairly privatized and monetized — and the burden falls disproportionately on African Americans. Ultimately, he felt that Roman J. Israel — a character inspired by the spirit of activism in the ‘60s and ‘70s — would be best suited to tie into modern grassroots and legal activism.

“I remember the 1960s, and I remember the spirit of everybody fighting and challenging civil rights laws, fighting for women’s’ rights, anti-war protests,” Gilroy explained. “I’ve just watched over the last four decades, this national spirit of change in the world.” Roman’s devotion to legal reform, while historical in its inspiration, is undoubtedly still relevant in today’s world.

At the heart of Roman’s story, of course, is the brilliant performance by Washington. The veteran actor brings to life the attorney’s quirks and idiosyncrasies — from his clothes and music to his distinct mannerisms — with the same nuance as he portrays the painstaking work that goes into Roman’s researching of statutes and drafting of legal documents.

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What’s even more impressive is how much Washington interpreted the original script to shape the role on his own. “Denzel really was in charge and took the ownership of the character,” said Gilroy. “I always felt that I wanted creative space — and he felt comfortable creating it.” Even in Washington’s illustrious repertoire of roles, “Roman J.” goes down as some of his best work.

The film doesn’t just benefit from Washington’s performance — rather, it thrives off of the natural interactions between Roman, George and Roman’s resilient younger friend and love interest Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a founder of a national nonprofit civil rights organization.

As George, Farrell plays the earnest, hardworking young lawyer who attempts to prove to Roman how refined his legal prowess actually is — only to find himself more and more reliant on and impressed by his older, far more experienced employee. His portrayal of the stable, soft-hearted “everyman” serves as an excellent balance to Washington’s eccentricities. As Maya, on the other hand, Ejogo matches the central character’s passion for civil rights through a consistently compelling and emotional performance — Maya’s dedication to radical, grassroots activism is what keeps Roman’s motivation grounded throughout the film.

Gilroy believes that all the leads were able to truly bring their own interpretations to the characters in order to make their performances as convincing and as compelling as possible. “When you hire a great actor, and if everybody feels they’re on the same page with the script, what I like to do is step back,” he said. “I like an actor to develop the character, create the character, make the character their own.”

The film does not just maintain its ties to the past through its plot and performances — visually, it recreates a vintage aesthetic that makes modern-day Los Angeles feel like the revolutionary heart of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit shot “Roman J.” entirely on film and utilized the grainy visual texture to create a more raw, natural overall appearance. In addition, one of the techniques they used was desaturation — extracting some of the brightness from the colors in the film to create the illusion of warmth. All of this served a greater purpose — as Gilroy noted, “emotions live in warm environments.”

The emotional warmth on film translates to the emotions conveyed through the powerful performances and fascinating, relevant subject matter explored in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” In 2017 especially, the film exemplifies the constant attention we must devote to civil rights in our daily lives.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].