November 22, 2017

Roman J. Israel Esq.: Denzel’s Oscar-Quality Performance as Attorney With Asperger’s

By Kam Williams

Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a high-functioning savant on the autism spectrum who has been practicing law in Los Angeles for 36 years. The brilliant attorney has spent most of his career under the radar, writing legal briefs for indigent criminal defendants in a rear office, while his partner, William Henry Jackson, was the face of the firm who cultivated clients and argued their cases in the courtroom.

This arrangement worked well for Roman who, besides his disorder, was also a political activist dedicated to a progressive agenda to assist downtrodden individuals unfairly caught in the net of the prison-industrial complex. Because of that commitment, he was willing to work for far less pay than colleagues of his caliber. Consequently, the highly-principled lawyer has scraped by on a modest salary by living in the same apartment for decades, and subsisting on a diet of peanut butter sandwiches. 

Everything changes when William Jackson suffers a heart attack and the two-person firm is forced to dissolve. Roman first applies for a position with a public interest nonprofit organization that shares his values. But when the director (Carmen Ejogo) explains that they don’t have the money to hire an attorney, he joins a corporate firm where he’s teamed with a young associate (Colin Farrell) who is interested only in obtaining big fees.

This leaves Roman on the horns of an ethical dilemma. Should he abandon his morals to keep a roof over his head? That is the question at the center of Roman J. Israel, Esq., a character portrait written and directed by Oscar-nominee Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler).

Denzel Washington is quite convincing as a beleaguered soul afflicted with Asperberger’s syndrome. Win, lose, or draw, Roman J. Israel, Esq. deserves accolades for its touching treatment of a sensitive subject.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and profanity. Running time: 129 minutes. Production Studio: Bron Creative/Cross Creek Pictures/Escape Artists/FZ /Macro. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.