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Kick Off Black History Month with 5 Lessons from Denzel

Why am I kicking off Black History Month writing about Denzel? Well, for one thing, “Dude My Wife Would Leave Me For and I Wouldn’t Blame Her Month” is not yet a thing. If it were, though, rest assured, we would celebrate it in December, the month of His Majesty’s birth, and all any network or streaming outlet would play for 31 panty-tossing days would be The Preacher’s Wife, a Christmas movie about a man apparently stupid enough to stand idly by while his wife went ice skating with Denzel Washington.

NEVER send Denzel Washington ice skating with the one you love. What are you, nuts?

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is: I got to thinking about artists who have impacted me and Denzel is on a short list of actors I simply cannot imagine my life without. To put it simply, the man’s taught me some lessons that I think can serve us all.

It’s Time to Come Together

Remember the Titans

I’m a coach. I’ve coached football, tackle and flag. I’ve pushed young men and young women, boys and girls until they gulped in air and exhaled hate…for me. It’s a necessary “evil.” Yes, it’s important for conditioning, to get in shape for the season, the rigors of the game. But there’s also something about the shared suffering that forges a bond.

Tragically, though, there’s suffering that has defined this country, the suffering Coach Boone recounts as he tells the tale of the Battle of Gettysburg, the suffering we watch young men on that team, barely old enough to need a razor, inflict upon one another, that has done just the opposite in this country. “The same fight” that continued to tear them apart, continues to tear us apart.

Maybe, as Coach Boone suggests, if we could manage to respect each other, to come together as a team, we would have more stories about boys (and girls!) who make us proud…instead of so many stories about Proud Boys.

Teachers Learn

Antwone Fisher

As long as I’m on the topic of coaching…. When I coach, I make a basic demand of every player, “I demand two things: attitude and effort.” My point: You can’t control whether you’re the biggest, or the strongest, or the fastest…or even, sometimes, whether you win or lose. However, you can control how you show up and whether you give your all. And if you give your all, we all walk off the field with our heads held high.

My son has heard that speech many times. (I’m sure he’d stress many.)

Some years back, I ran a marathon. I got hurt about 8 miles in–it turns out that I had torn a muscle–but I gritted my teeth through 18 miles and finished. Across the finish line, I was handed a medal. Furious that I had not run my target time, my initial instinct was to throw that medal right in the trash. Instead, I turned to my young son, “Want it?” He looked up at me, incredulous, “No. You keep it. I didn’t do a good job. You did a good job.” He stopped me in my tracks. He was right. I kept that medal. I wear the T-shirt from that race all the time. I’d brought the attitude and effort. That was all I could ever ask. And it took a kid, still in elementary school, to set me straight on what winning actually looks like.

Stand Up for the Downtrodden

Malcolm X

I love this sequence. It is preceded by a challenge of sorts as a woman suggests Malcolm will do nothing for the man the police have beaten because the man is not a Muslim…and Muslims only look out for Muslims.

Malcolm X did do something. He looked beyond his “circle.” He expanded his circle. He expanded his worldview in that moment and stood up for a man the police (and the society they represented) had beaten down.

We’re at our best when we do that. We’re at our best when we feed the hungry…when we clothe the naked…when we embrace those who feel most alone. Maybe it’s the money we contribute to a GoFundMe for someone’s medical expenses. Maybe it’s the moment we take to make sure our ignored colleague is heard in a meeting. Maybe it’s the time we spend at the local library ushering adults into literacy. (Okay, that last one was a shout-out to my late mom.)

But, yeah, we should stand up for the downtrodden.

Speak from the Heart

Glory

When we meet Private Trip, he is easily dismissed as a bit of a troublemaker, maybe even a bully. As the story unfolds, though, we see his scars…those visible physically…and some he’s hidden away inside.

By the time the 54th is gathered around that fire, he’s approached opening up to others in a way that we know he hasn’t, perhaps ever.

Trip steps up, as awkward and, frankly, frightening as that is for him. He opens his mouth and, by so doing, opens himself up to a type of pain that is worse than that of the lash of the whip we’ve seen him endure. It’s from that vulnerable place, though, that he taps into his greatest power, that he connects with the men around him.

By the next morning, he’s the one who lifts the flag, the one who leads the charge. He opens his heart and finds the heart to charge uphill toward cannons and to inspire the men around him to do the same.

“We men, ain’t we?”

Yes, you are, Trip.

May we all find it within ourselves to be men…and women…and non-binary identifying soldiers…in this battle called life, worthy of your legacy.

Note: If you watch this film, get through this scene, and ain’t ready to run through a brick wall, a raging fire, and/or the very pits of hell…take stock of your life…because you may already be dead.

Express Yourself

The Hurricane

I’m a writer. (If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking, “That’s debatable,” to which I say, “Really??? You’re just gonna insult a Black man during Black History Month??? THAT’S RACIST!!!”) But before I wrote, I read.

It wasn’t until I was ten years old and pulled into a program called Prep for Prep that threw me into classrooms with the smartest kids I’d ever met, that I was introduced to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It was that summer that I read Black Boy. It had never really occurred to me that anyone had or would bother to write a book about a Black boy like me. But Richard Wright had. It never occurred to me that anyone would tell the story of the types of uncles, men I recognized clearly, who protect their family members…by any means necessary. But Maya Angelou had. And they had no way of knowing (or maybe they did!) that as they expressed themselves, they freed me to do the same someday. As I grew older, I learned that there were different ways to express yourself.

Nina Simone did it with her voice.

The Nicholas Brothers did it with their feet.

And Denzel…no last name necessary…does it with his entire being…in front of a camera…and audiences around the world.

Yes, indeed… “writing” is magic. Expressing ourselves is magic.

For Malcolm X, standing up for those who have been beaten down was magic. For Private Trip, leaning into vulnerability to find unfound strength was magic. For Dr. Jerome Davenport, pouring yourself into another case until you learn some lessons of your own was magic. For Coach Herman Boone, a rag tag, racially divided mess becoming a team, a metaphor for what America can be, was magic. And for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, writing was magic.

Denzel Washington has spent decades stepping into the skin of these men, these human beings from different spaces and places, and bringing us the magic of who he is, through the magic of who they are. Go. Stream. Watch. Marvel. Savor. Learn.

But whatever you do…do NOT send him ice skating with the one you love. (What are you, nuts?)

Check out some of the Black History Month titles on Plex:

I Am Not Your Negro

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Good Hair

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Life of a King

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Written By

Stand up comedian, TV writer, film director, coach, human dynamo. This Brooklyn-born Yale graduate and Los Angeles resident covers everything from sports to film and television.

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