There’s a moment in Ang Lee’s underrated but poorly-titled civil war movie “Ride with the Devil” in which a trio of pro-confederacy bushwhackers are hiding in a hovel near a farm in Missouri. One of the bushwhackers, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), is romancing a civil war widow (Jewel), but when the romance continues indoors, his friend Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) objects, and attempts to enlist the aid of the third bushwhacker, the former slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who is incongruously fighting with the confederates. “Leave Holt out of this,” Daniel Holt responds, not unmindful of the dangerous racial/sexual territory being entered. “Holt ain’t even here. Holt ain’t nowhere near here.”
You could say the same for the actor saying these lines. He disappears so completely into his characters that as you watch him perform you think: “Jeffrey Wright ain’t even here. Jeffrey Wright ain’t nowhere near here.”
Not a minor character in anything
If you’re a Jeffrey Wright fan, as I am, your movie pickings are pretty slim. Nearly a decade after his star turn as Jean Michel Basquiat in “Basquiat,” most of the movies he’s appeared in have been little-noted nor long-remembered. He played Chris, the bartender who romances Ellen Barkin in “Crime and Punishment in Suburbia” (2000). Its box office take was $26,000. He played Jaworski, a crazy ex-cop with a disfigured face, in Sylvester Stallone’s “Eye See You” (2002): $79,000. In “Cement” (1999), he played the corrupt, drugged-out partner to Chris Penn’s histrionic bullying cop. Straight to video. In each of these films (all of which are awful, by the way), he’s just a bit or supporting player.
Of course most bit and supporting players act like bit and supporting players. Wright’s characters don’t. They suggest a full life, even if their life is not full. In John Barth's 1958 novel “The End of the Road,” one character lectures another about how we're all the lead characters in our own lives; about how movies and plays exacerbate this egocentricity by narrowing the focus to a single point of view. “‘Hamlet’,” he says, “could be told from Polonius' point of view and called ‘The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlein of Denmark.’ He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.”
So with Wright’s characters. In “Suburbia” Chris is amazingly present as he romances Ellen Barkin. When he accidentally shoots someone and walks away from the crime scene repeating “I didn’t do that,” it’s not the reaction of a character who does their necessary bit for the story; it’s the reaction of a person who can’t process how his life has irrevocably changed.
Even characters whose job it is to be more or less subservient to other (usually lead) characters suggest a full life. Wright won both Tony and Emmy awards for playing Belize, the drag-queen nurse in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and from the moment you first see him, tossing glitter-confetti to cheer up a bed-ridden, AIDS-ravaged Prior Walter, you love him. He cheers, but he doesn’t lie. He cares, in a world that doesn’t. “Why’d they have to pick on you?” he says, resigned but not, holding Prior’s hand. Near the end he berates the solipsistic Louis who has suggested Belize is in love with Prior. “I have a man, uptown,” Belize says, and when Louis says he didn’t know, Belize snaps, “Because you never bothered to ask!” It’s Belize dressing down Louis but he could be dressing down the playwright as well.
I would love to ignore the racial component in all this — this is an article about one man’s talent, after all — but most of the stories that get made in Hollywood are white stories. By suggesting the full life of his characters, Wright suggests the stories that aren’t being told. What about Holt? Why don’t we follow him down to Texas to find his mother? What about Winston, Bill Murray’s Ethiopian neighbor in “Broken Flowers”? He’s so much more interesting than Murray’s character, because he’s so much more interested. Let’s follow him instead.
Being Dr. King
More remarkable than suggesting the full life of minor characters is suggesting the full life of one of the major figures of the 20th century. Wright did that when he played the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in HBO’s “Boycott” (2001).
I remember the first time I became aware of this film. I was at Scarecrow Video in Seattle and from the TV above the counter I heard Dr. King giving a speech. Except it was not his rousing “I have a dream” voice; it was his everyday sermon voice that lingered on words but never reached for the stratosphere. Save for the richness of the baritone, it was almost boring, and I wondered why they were showing one of Dr. King’s boring speeches at Scarecrow. But when I looked up it wasn’t Dr. King talking but Jeffrey Wright. I’d seen him play the graffiti artist Basquiat and the Dominican druglord Peoples Hernandez in “Shaft.” Now Dr. King.
When I finally saw the film what blew me away was not just the imitation — that he could do both versions (rousing and everyday) of the public Dr. King — but that he was able to articulate a private Dr. King that felt real. Let’s face it. In most Hollywood biopics great figures are, to quote “Amadeus,” “people so lofty they sound as if they s--t marble.” Not here. Jeffrey Wright’s private Dr. King teases and jokes. He flirts with his wife. In most movies in which Great Men Do Great Things, the interaction between husband and wife is dull. The Great Thing involves risk, and the wife urges the Great Man away from this risk for the sake of the family. In essence, she urges him away from the story. In “Boycott,” Dr. King and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, Wright’s wife) are a team. At church, when he takes up a second collection to aid the boycott, she starts the applause. While getting ready for bed, when she asks him if he thinks their neighbors will give up their cars to aid the boycott, his rich baritone drops to a purr. “Well,” he says, getting close, “I’ve been told I have certain powers of persuasion.”
The theme of “Boycott” (a good film, if too flashily directed) is that history just doesn’t happen. History is a series of choices, and the filmmakers work hard to show you the choices that began the civil rights movement. To do this they need a human Dr. King who works things through — from simply asking for a more humane bus system to demanding the elimination of segregation itself. It’s not just a great performance; no one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let me repeat that: No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Which is to say: If any producer in Hollywood wants to make a full-scale, big-budget Dr. King biopic, now is the time, for you have your actor. But time is running out. Jeffrey Wright is already older (40 in December) than Martin Luther King ever got to be.
“Suggesting a full life” does not mean grandstanding; it often means staying in the background. In “Ali,” Wright’s Howard Bingham is barely noticeable. He’s a photographer and photographers want to notice rather than be noticed. Bennett Holiday in “Syriana” is a lawyer who may be a sheep or a lion (or more accurately: he’s what kind of sheep, or what kind of lion?), but isn’t particularly vivid. Even so, when a bigwig says conversationally, “So you’re Sidney Hewitt’s new boy,” Bennett does an almost imperceptible double-take. You can see him thinking: Is that...? Is he...?
This is Wright’s strength: You can see his characters think. In “Ali,” Bingham’s two-second reaction to Don King’s long Latinate explanations is almost worth the price of admission, and differs from Belize listening to Louis blather on in “Angels.” Both characters are obviously bored listening to blowhards, but Bingham steels himself, trying to pay attention until the point is made, while Belize sits straight-backed and looks off to the side until Louis, he hopes, talks himself out. Wright is nothing if not a details man.
This is also Wright’s drawback: Most moviegoers aren’t interested in watching anyone think. They want action. They want vivid. They want to know who somebody is right now. Holt? A free black man fighting for the Confederacy? What’s that about? Jeffrey Wright? A black actor who doesn’t scare us or make us laugh? What’s the point?
Actually there’s only one point in Hollywood and that’s box office. But box office just doesn’t happen; box office is a series of choices.
Erik Lundegaard (email@example.com) is serious about wanting a feature-length film about Martin Luther King, Jr. starring Jeffrey Wright. Please get on that.