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Law and Grace in ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

A plot summary of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (now in theaters) makes its themes sound more political than religious.

The protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, is a lawyer most comfortable working behind the scenes and building the foundation of a class-action case against the misuse and abuse of plea bargaining. When his partner dies, Roman Israel has trouble adjusting to the modern legal landscape. Though he clearly has deep-seated social and political convictions, Roman doesn’t appear to be particularly motivated by religious faith.

But in an early scene, the title character claims, “Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we have ever done.” Not surprisingly, the civil-rights lawyer ends up himself doing a bad, bad thing not long afterward. Does his own capacity for moral compromise make him rethink his elevated view of human nature? Does the film ask us to share that view?

Twice before the end of the film, Roman will proclaim: “Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly. That is the first law of nature.”

Noble sentiments. But are they Christian?

Law and Grace

Washington’s character’s name, which is also the title of the film, suggests the lawyer represents a conflict between the values of Rome, embedded in our civil law, and the values of Israel, embedded in religious practices. When asked what the “J.” stood for—could it be an oblique reference to the one who bridges the gap between law and grace?—writer and director Dan Gilroy deflected with a joke about Jif peanut butter.

In an interview with members of the evangelical press, Gilroy (Nightcrawler) affirmed that “the law is a religion” to the character of Roman, whom he said is experiencing a “spiritual conflict.” Gilroy spoke more about his character’s faith than his own, but in the same interview, Denzel Washington called Gilroy his “prayer partner” in making the film and insisted that “we know who we work for.”

Roman knows whom he works for in both a legal and a spiritual sense. He makes clear, forceful distinctions between right and wrong. He impresses his colleagues in one scene by reciting portions of the penal law from memory. Unlike many of his peers who use their knowledge to enrich themselves, Roman believes in fighting for the underprivileged. And like many true believers, he is aghast when the system becomes dysfunctional, due to the burnout and indifference of its agents.

But eventually the toll of tilting at windmills wears Roman down. He has high standards but struggles to live up to them. Tired of “doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he eventually uses privileged information to collect a reward for turning in a fugitive. The bulk of the film’s second half revolves around the question of how we should feel about Roman when he breaks the law and sins against his own conscience.

You Can’t Absolve Yourself

While Washington and Gilroy collaborated in creating the character of Roman J. Israel and agreed that he goes through a spiritual journey in the film, their respective takes differed on the meaning and importance of that journey.

Gilroy has emphasized Roman’s assertion, in a climactic scene, that he is able to forgive himself. He said this is meant to indicate Roman needed to (and did) “transcend an earthly court.” Washington, on the other hand, said the line about Roman pardoning himself “bothered me” and that he kept asking Gilroy: “Where’s the God in this? . . . What are we trying to say?”

For Washington—the son of a Pentecostal minister and considered one of Hollywood’s most outspoken Christians—Roman’s conflict was less between an earthly and heavenly court than between the “law” and “faith.” Washington cited a pivotal scene, in which Roman wades in the ocean, as the moment his character transitions from a faith of the mind to a more spiritual union with the divine. Until that point, “he really is Old Testament,” Washington said.

Repentance and Redemption

While Washington said he struggled with the script’s allowing Roman to absolve himself (“You can’t grant forgiveness to yourself,” he said), the actor rejected the notion that Roman is a Pharisee. Citing the atonement, Washington said that his character “went as far as he could go” and that a viewer with a New Testament lens might have confidence that God could “bring him home.”

Does that just mean love wins? Is “pardoning each other’s folly” a reasonable substitute for repentance and absolution from sin? How important are the words we use when we talk to the world about how we will be judged?

Many Christians will share Washington’s concern over the film’s framing of pardon as something we give ourselves. Others may read the film’s ending as suggesting a modern works-oriented salvation: Roman must be forgiven because the good he does outweighs a single bad deed. What Washington describes as going “as far as he could go,” some will simply call repentance. What Roman calls forgiving himself might simply be a (very) confused way of saying we all must accept and internalize the forgiveness we receive from God in order to be truly free of self-condemnation.

Christian viewers may disagree in their interpretations of Roman J. Israel, Esq., but it is nevertheless exciting to see a serious Hollywood production that openly invites such discussion and revolves around such questions.

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