Roman J. Israel Esq. (More Than Fiction)

Josh H
4 min readNov 26, 2017

A review with brevity (if not wit)

Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington plays Roman J. Israel Esq., who is a civil rights attorney who is particularly talented (perhaps a savant) at writing legal arguments (and concocting legal strategies) and a civil rights attorney who is particularly untalented at arguing cases in court (or at relating with other people virtually all social spaces).

Luckily for Roman, he has spent his 38 years in practice in a partnership with a gifted courtroom lawyer (known as ‘The Bulldog’).

Unluckily for Roman, after over 30 years of practice, his gifted courtroom partner has a heart attack which forces Roman to reinvent himself (despite his considerable social deficits, in what appears to be his late 50’s).

Roman finds himself with few options except to trade in on his talent while constantly at danger of sacrificing his long-invested in integrity.

Roman J. Israel Esquire is a movie that can be interpreted in several ways:

  • As an attempt at presenting a traditional movie narrative about two thirds of the movie works well.
  • As a star vehicle for Denzel Washington the movie works well in allowing him to create a memorable and impactful character.
  • As a criminal justice allegory (imagine Roman represents the Civil Rights Generation and the slick lawyer is White America), Roman J. Israel works on every level

The Color of Law, Lawless Law, and Plea Bargains

Roman J. Israel, a black attorney, has spent his entire adult life fighting the good fight despite it being a huge disadvantage to his ability to move forward in a system that rewards everything but criminal defense.

Roman is left, after his partners unfortunate heart attack, with only the option of taking a job offer from the corrupted but successful white lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell).

Mr. Pierce wants to clean his conscience by hiring Roman but he also, at the same time, wants to appropriate and use Roman’s style of personal attention in order to increase the firm’s profits.

Meanwhile, Roman, who has spent his entire life helping people, decides that it is finally time to do something purely selfish and puts everything he is and everything he has ever accomplished at risk.

The movie explores how legal corruption protects “some people” while illegal corruption destroys “others.”

Why do pharmaceutical CEO’s get subsidized for incentivizing doctors to overprescribe opioids while people of color spend decades in prison for selling small amounts of crack cocaine or methamphetamine?

Why do people with money get bail while people without money get to spend their entire pre-trial period incarcerated?

This movie is an allegory for the American Criminal Justice system writ large (where legal and illegal is often determined by access to power, structural racism, and the color of law).

George Pierce is rewarded for practicing lawless law (law unconnected or unconcerned with justice) while Roman J. Israel Esq. is put immediately at risk the first time he puts himself on the wrong side of the justice system.

In our legal system, what matters most is not your intent, it is either how well you know how to subvert the spirit of the law with the letter of the law or how practiced you are at using the letter of the law to justify your own corruption.

I am still conflicted about some elements of this movie, but I suspect that this means that it inspired critical thought.

This was a very good movie considering some very important and salient topics.

Thinking Out Loud

  • Denzel is, as usual, brilliant. I was profoundly impacted by Roman and as much as the movie made me occasionally uncomfortable, I really became fond of Roman.
  • Colin Ferrell has been quietly doing some really great work over the last few years (if you have not seen “The Lobster” I considered it one of the best, and most interesting, movies of 2015).
  • The movie has a really important sub-plot about plea bargaining, the brutally coercive practice that is the engine enabling the mass incarceration machine. It is absolutely correct that over 90% of all cases never go to trial (are plea-bargained) and that the criminal justice system more resembles a misery factory than a place where justice is served or delivered.
  • I found some of the “trouble with the curve” style “those young activists today” criticism came across very much like parents complaining about the kids music today being “devil music” (self-serving, misinformed, and in one particular moment very sexist and dismissive of feminist criticism).
  • If you don’t feel like you understand how people of color feel when they are stopped by police, there is a scene in this movie that is about as chilling to watch as you will ever see.
  • The music is incredible, very happy to hear “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch which is a NYC funk classic (played during the riding the subway scene).

Josh is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and whatever else seems interesting at the time.

Conclusion: Often Sad and Troubling, but Highly Recommended

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Josh H

Author, Criminal Justice Reform Advocate, Co-Host of the "Decarceration Nation" Podcast, Television critic and Movie Reviewer, OnPirateSatellite.com