Friday, February 24, 2017

Nobody says "Huh?" like Denzel

This is the second of 12 or 13 blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis from January 2017 until this blog's final post in December 2017.

Once upon a time, I ran an Internet radio station that streamed film and TV score music. I don't really miss running it. The audience for it dwindled over the years, and even though Live365, the Bay Area company that powered the station before the end of the Webcaster Settlement Act led to Live365's demise early last year, is being resuscitated, I don't have any plans to bring back the station.

But I've kept the station alive on Mixcloud, where I've archived a few hours of old station content and posted lots of new one-to-two-hour mixes of music from original scores. The most popular of those mixes has been a mix of Kyle Dixon/Michael Stein score cues from the first season of Netflix's unexpectedly popular Stranger Things. It's called "Where's Barb?"

Late last year, the score albums for the Magnificent Seven remake and the film version of Fences, which both star Denzel Washington, were sent to my inbox, and that made me want to edit together an entire mix of score cues from Denzel movies. Denzel has been one of my favorite actors, ever since he stole the 1989 white savior movie Glory (and won an Oscar for stealing it) in the same way Don Cheadle would later steal Devil in a Blue Dress from Denzel. In Glory, he was basically the Toshiro Mifune character from Seven Samurai: the shit-talking troublemaker and outsider who learns to channel his anger and penchant for self-destruction into a worthy cause and then (SPOILER!) dies a hero.

The late James Horner's score from that 1989 Civil War movie, Terence Blanchard's 1992 Malcolm X score and Hans Zimmer's 1995 Crimson Tide score are a trifecta of Denzel-related instrumental badassery. Put those three scores together in either a mix or an hour of radio programming, and that hour of music is automatically going to sound as rousing and badass as a Denzel speech. Procrastinating on a writing project or that load of laundry? Put on the badass "Fruit of Islam" from Malcolm X's classic hospital march sequence. Immediately after hearing "Fruit of Islam," shit is going to be done. Laundry is going to be washed.

This month is the perfect time to post a mix of score cues from Denzel flicks. Several of Denzel's most highly regarded movies are frequently recommended during Black History Month by the likes of film critics and librarians, and Fences, Denzel's third big-screen directorial effort, is up for a few Oscars this weekend. Viola Davis, who reprised a role she had alongside Denzel in one of the various stage versions of Fences, is the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress trophy.

Throughout the Mixcloud mixes, I like to drop audio clips from the movies or TV shows that I've selected for score cue airplay. For this Denzel mix, I could have gone with audio from Denzel speeches as the connective tissue between each Denzel movie score cue, but I decided to go with something even more brash as connective tissue: clips from the very funny Earwolf podcast Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, hosted by stand-ups W. Kamau Bell, the host of the CNN documentary series United Shades of America, and Kevin Avery, a writer for Last Week Tonight.

Bell, Avery and a special guest Denzealot, whether it's another comedian, a black filmmaker or one of Denzel's previous co-stars, dissect the work of their favorite charismatic actor, with lots of humor and occasional jabs at things like Virtuosity (the poorly received 1995 Denzel cyber-thriller that pitted 'Zel against a murderous A.I. played by a pre-L.A. Confidential Russell Crowe) and Denzel's visible discomfort during Much Ado About Nothing's frolicking scenes. Denzel himself is aware of the podcast's existence. But I highly doubt he's ever going to be a guest on this podcast that both celebrates his many triumphs as an actor (as well as a director of both episodic TV and small-scale feature films) and dredges up Virtuosity-esque career missteps, and Denzel's recent Fences press junket comment about not wanting to live in the past confirmed it. The podcast doesn't just live in Denzel's big-screen (and small-screen) past. It raises kids and builds a whole garden of gladioli in his past.

Kevin Avery and W. Kamau Bell, hosts of the Earwolf podcast with the title that's too long to type out

"The Walk," from Devil in a Blue Dress
Perhaps the best thing about Bell and Avery's discussions of Denzel's mostly fascinating filmography (geri-action flicks like 2 Guns, the only Denzel movie that's based on a comic book, are not as fascinating, but hey, if those paycheck movies are the only way for Denzel to expose more people to August Wilson plays, then more power to them) is that they've led to always-welcome-in-the-mostly-white-podcastosphere conversations about inclusion in Hollywood, particularly the push for more diversity in that whiter-than-a-pumpkin-spice-latte town. Bell (who's no stranger to the push for more diversity, after trying to make late-night TV less of a white boys' club while hosting Totally Biased on FX and FXX) and Avery are nicely aware that diversity isn't just a black issue. It's an Asian American issue. It's a disabled artist's issue. I love how the podcast gets Bell's Politically Re-Active co-host, the great Indian American stand-up Hari Kondabolu, to talk about Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, the 1991 interracial romance movie that paired up Denzel with Sarita Choudhury, or how it gets disability rights activist Alice Wong to weigh in on The Bone Collector, the 1999 serial killer flick that starred Denzel as a quadriplegic cop.

Hip-hop is composed of four elements (graffiti, DJing, rhymes and dancing), and according to Bell and Avery on their podcast, Denzelishness is similarly made up of a few elements: that confident walk Denzel always does; the speeches; that weird thing he does with his lip; the stutter; the cough; the thousand-yard stare; general badassery; and the Glory tear, a.k.a. the single tear on Denzel's face when his character gets whipped in Glory. While picking out clips from Denzel Is the Greatest for the Mixcloud mix and listening to so many conversations in which they evaluate a movie's Denzelishness, I've realized Bell and Avery have overlooked one major element of Denzelishness: the Denzel "Huh?"

During the Detroit Red section of Malcolm X, Denzel said "Huh?" It's one of many tics Denzel deployed to intimidate Roger Guenveur Smith during their scene together. He said it repeatedly when his character knocked the fuck out of Rosario Dawson's side dude in He Got Game.

Then Denzel dropped "Huh?" again during his famous King Kong speech in Training Day, as well as during his Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech for his villainous turn in Training Day. Whoot, there it is again during American Gangster and The Magnificent Seven. Even the Uncle Denzel meme says "Huh?"

Actor Alphonso McAuley, a familiar face from countless commercials and the short-lived Fox sitcom Breaking In, picked up on Denzel's love of the word "Huh?" and posted on his YouTube account a supercut of the Denzel "Huh?" from American Gangster. Then when McAuley later appeared in Melvin Gregg's recent YouTube comedy short, "The Greatest Denzel Scene Ever," a video that imagines four different Denzel characters interacting, McAuley and his fellow Denzel impersonators littered their Denzel impressions with the Denzel "Huh?"

I wonder if New Girl has ever worked Lamorne Morris' Denzel impression into the show. It's been a minute since I've watched New Girl. The last time I watched New Girl was the "Megan Fox moves into the loft and reveals she was Cece's ex-lover" episode. Anyway, Morris' impression during Gregg's video is amazing. He clearly watched American Gangster 158 times. None of the Denzel impressions in Gregg's video are from any of Denzel's action movies (Flight, which is channeled by Giovanni Watson in the video, is not an action movie, but, as I've said before, Paramount marketed it as an actioner, in order to trick Denzel's most conservative fans into watching an addiction drama they'd most likely stay away from). McAuley, Gregg, Morris and Watson may not have realized this while making the video, but the video proves my point that Action Hero Denzel is boring as fuck.

But McAuley and his fellow impressionists are clearly aware that no other performer imbues a tiny and insignificant word like "Huh?" with several different layers of meaning at once (or with so much badassery) like Denzel frequently does. "You feel me?" "Why are you wasting my time with this Simple Simon-ass shit?" "How does that punch to the throat feel?" "Do I need to drive you to the doctor because I got a lot of problems right now, and I ain't adding you to the fucking list, so deal with it on your own?"

Those are things Denzel is somehow able to simultaneously say whenever he blurts out "Huh?" It reminds me of when Michaela Watkins was clearly aware that SNL characters with catchphrases were becoming a corny thing to the audience by the time of her stint on SNL, so to mock that corniness, as well as defy it, she took her snotty celebrity gossip blogger character's misguided-in-the-belief-that-it's-going-to-catch-on catchphrase of "Bitch pleeze!" and remarkably uttered it in a different way every single time within the three minutes she was given on Weekend Update. It also reminds me of when Mark Hamill once explained that every time he has the Joker blurt out a little "Hoo!" at the end of a sentence, the meaning of "Hoo!" changes every time in his head. These are subtleties nobody notices outside of actors, directors and film or TV critics. That's why all these performers, whether it's Morris, Rick Gonzalez, who's clearly doing a Denzel-taunting-Braugher-in-Glory impression each week as Rene the wanna-be vigilante on Arrow, or the hosts of Denzel Is the Greatest, view Denzel as the greatest actor of all time, period. What other movie star with continually solid opening weekends would still be that obsessed with the word "Huh?" and his or her delivery of it?

Okay, maybe Nicolas Cage would be. But he's not a movie star with continually solid opening weekends anymore. Denzel--despite the worrisome threat of a superhero-based economy--amazingly still is.

"Denzel Washington Is Accompanied by the Greatest Film Scores of All Time Period," a two-hour mix of original score cues from Denzel movies, is now part of the AFOS Mixcloud page.

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