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A Unique Character
Roman Israel is a character who continually bucks what he sees as a rigged system. "Roman's spent 40 years in a back room, fighting for the dispossessed and under-represented," Gilroy explains. "It's been his all-consuming passion."

Roman has dedicated his life to public service, but he's uncomfortable being in public - so uncomfortable, in fact, that he often finds himself unable to stop himself from going too far. His awkwardness is in his walk, the way he speaks - every ounce of his being. "He has no filter," says producer Jennifer Fox. "No ability to compromise. He's going to tell you the truth - the ugly truth - and you may not want to hear it. He's so idealistic, so pure, so morally forthright that he has no patience for people who do not see justice his way, and can't negotiate at all. He ends up hurting the very people he's fighting to protect."

"He is inexperienced in how to convey his knowledge and goes too far - he gets himself in trouble," says Washington.

That combination of fighting for the disenfranchised and never knowing when to quit - even at great personal risk - has cost Roman much. He lives a meager life in a tiny apartment on LA's Skid Row. For his entire career, he has worked in the back room of a firm headed by William Henry Jackson, a famous civil rights giant who got all the publicity arguing cases Roman meticulously prepared. But when Jackson suffers a stroke, Roman's world is upended.

Gilroy says he was inspired to create the role by seeing the spirit of activism of the 1960s and 70s in the current grassroots engagement. "We're living in a time when people on all sides of the political spectrum are seeing a need to take action and stand up for what they believe in," says Gilroy. "It reminds me of the 1960s, when there were large-scale demonstrations and protests - an incredible spirit of activism. I began to wonder: what would it be like if someone committed their entire life to those ideals and stayed with it for decades? It turns out, there are a small handful of people who never did leave the activism that drove the 1960s - and they seem to gravitate toward law."

Washington agrees that Roman Israel's fight feels very current and modern. "People like Roman - they're here now, doing good work," he says.

There are aspects to the character that Washington has never portrayed before. "His social skills are lacking; he doesn't have the ability to read the signs that the other person is giving him," says Washington. "He's a bit of a savant who's been protected by his boss while he did all of the groundwork. He's been comfortable in his small apartment, his small world, fighting the good fight, and is not really capable of going out there and being in front of people. I said that Mr. Jackson protected him from other people, but another way of looking at it is that Mr. Jackson protected other people from him."

That protection has also made Roman something of a relic. "Roman's out of step with his time," says Gilroy. "Everything about him - his clothes, his music, his apartment, his mannerisms - haven't really changed since the 70s." For example, at one point in the film, he excoriates young men for taking seats while women (played memorably by jazz musician Esperanza Spalding and Jessica Camacho) stand in the back of the room - which doesn't go well when the women don't feel a need to be 'rescued.' "It's coming from the right place but shows how the world has moved on without him."

Washington says that the film isn't preachy or showy - rather, if the film moves people or changes minds, it's because that's what the character does. "The film isn't an indictment of the system - I don't look at it in those terms," Washington says. "I look at it as an actor, through the character's eyes. He doesn't come into a courtroom to say the things he says. He's not there to change anybody. But he can't help but to speak the truth. This is who he is, and that changes people."

Black says that Roman Israel's struggle is a universal one. "As we become adults, we try to stay true to ourselves and be guided by our consciences to do the right thing, and also try to fit in by doing what one needs to do to succeed in a place of business," he says. "That's a real conflict for Roman."

With Roman's life in upheaval, he begins to question everything he thought he believed in. "Roman's self-sacrifice and idealism have taken a toll. He makes a choice with life-altering ramifications," says Gilroy. "Coming to grips with that, making peace with it, applying the same principles to himself he applies to others, that's the essence of the film."

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