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About The Film
In Roman J. Israel, Esq., writer-director Dan Gilroy teams with two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington to create the portrait of a layered, complex man whose life has been spent fighting for others' civil rights - and paid a price for his activism. "For Roman the world is a war-zone and he's never left the front lines. It's a blessing and a burden," he says. "Activism can take an enormous emotional toll, but on the other side of the balance is the knowledge that you're becoming the change you want to see in the world - that you're making the world a better place. That's one of the key elements of the film: the importance of believing in something and the burden that often comes with that belief."

For Gilroy, the dual burden and blessing of belief are exemplified by a quote from civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. "Roman has pictures of his heroes on his wall, and Rustin is represented along with his quote, 'Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it,'" Gilroy notes. "That's the question Roman faces in the film - to what extent has he been saved or consumed by his fight against injustice? Anyone who hears a call to do more will see themselves in Roman."

Gilroy wrote the film on spec specifically for Washington, feeling he was the only actor who could bring the character to life. "I wrote this movie for Denzel because of his talent and because Denzel is a man who believes in human dignity and the human spirit. Knowing who Denzel is in real life, he brings that part of himself to this character."

More than simply hiring an actor for a role, Washington came on as a producer of the film, along with Jennifer Fox and Todd Black. Washington collaborated with Gilroy for a year before cameras rolled. During pre-production, Gilroy and Washington would meet in a recreation of Roman's apartment set, talking about the script, music and other aspects of Roman's life that would help Washington create the character. After production, Washington spent two weeks in the edit bay with Gilroy, helping to fine-tune the film.

"Writing the script on spec for Denzel was a huge leap of faith for Dan," says Fox. "If Denzel said no, there'd have been no movie. No one else could play Roman Israel. Denzel did say yes, Dan's bet paid off, and Dan and Denzel formed an incredible collaboration."

"Dan and I talked extensively about the spiritual aspects of his storytelling. He's a very spiritual man, and I work at it every day as well," says Washington. "Roman is on a spiritual journey, but he doesn't know it. Until now, he's had only two things in his life - the law and his boss - and now his boss is gone."

With the loss of William Henry Jackson, a leading legal activist, civil rights icon, and Roman's boss, Roman begins a crisis of conscience that leads to a loss of faith in everything he's held important until now - and after a tragic mistake, he comes around to finding that faith again. "There's a reason that the first and last lines of the movie are the same," says Fox. "Roman makes a complete arc in this film - a fall from grace, and a return to faith."

Well-known as the screenwriter of Hollywood spectacles like Kong: Skull Island and The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy made his directorial debut in 2014 with a very different kind of film - Nightcrawler - which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. "I can write spectacle-driven, entertaining films, but what I learned, coming off Nightcrawler is that audiences love to watch something character-based," says Gilroy. "Audiences are hungry for a story that resonates in real life, that's relevant."

That is what inspired Gilroy to create the character Roman J. Israel, whose life mission has been to wield the law on behalf of the disenfranchised. "The name of the character was one of the building blocks of the story - of a man in conflict with himself," says Gilroy. "The Esquire at the end of his name is of great importance to him. It's a mark of distinction which, as Roman says, is in the same realm as knight. As for the J., it's emblematic of his idiosyncratic nature."

Gilroy took his screenplay to Jennifer Fox, who also produced Nightcrawler. "Both Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel have elements in common - they are opposite sides of the same coin, outsiders who don't conform, both incapable of navigating the world.  Though the films have some obvious differences - Nightcrawler had a level of cynicism that Roman J. Israel does not - they are both criticisms of a system, led by characters who battle the system every step of the way," says Fox.  "Roman pays a great price for that battle - his belief that justice and mercy cannot be divorced nearly wrecks him."

Gilroy heavily researched the legal profession, in particular civil rights and activist attorneys.  He found an overburdened justice system in which the housing of inmates has been privatized and monetized, and one which disproportionately affects African-Americans.  "The criminal courts and prisons are wildly out of balance and greatly in need of reform," he says.

"When you go to a courthouse or a prison, you see people struggling to prove their worth, to prove their story - not even necessarily their innocence; they just want their story to be heard," says Todd Black. He says that many lawyers in the system don't hear that, because they take a more clinical view of their cases. "They're cut and dry - does it fit the law or doesn't it fit the law? - and they put zero moral value on right or wrong."

Into this world, enter Roman J. Israel, Esq., a character whose "moral compass always points north," Black continues. "Denzel has played a lot of morally corrupt people and a lot of morally right people, but this character is like no one he's ever played before."

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