Denzel Washington, Flight and ‘New Negro Exceptionalism’

January 13, 2024
9 mins read

By Usame Tunagur | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Saturday, January 19, 2013.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced its 2013 Oscar nominations. Nominated in the Best Actor category for his strong performance inFlight (2012), Denzel Washington received his 6th Oscar nomination, making him the most nominated black actor. So far, he has won the hardware twice; one for Best Supporting Actor in Glory (1989) and another one for Best Actor in Training Day (2001).

In Robert Zemeckis’ film Flight, Denzel Washington plays the role of an alcoholic and an accomplished pilot; a character packaged with subtle clues hinting at a generational burden of representation and the possibility of a complex humanization. Whip Whitaker is an extremely skillful veteran commercial airlines pilot who pulls off a spectacular emergency landing, saving all but six of 102 passengers after an unheard of upside-down maneuver —a maneuver the nation’s top 10 pilots failed to achieve in flight simulations. Under normal circumstances, this would make him an instant hero. However, Whip is totally drunk and has serious amounts of cocaine in his veins during this flight. The rest of the film proceeds through Whip’s challenge with his addiction along with an NTSBinvestigation and a hearing that threatens him with prison time. Reminiscent of the young black pilot who crashes his plane during a Tuskegee training flight in Ralph Ellison’s short story Flying Home, Whip (also) has to come to terms with who he is not in the skies —a space historically cherished by many African Americans as an abode away from socio-political realities of oppression, violence and inequality— but rather on the ground, and finally rise up again in the vein of the mythological Phoenix.

Flight’sarc operates on a failure to accept and deal with addiction. Nevertheless, upon a closer reading, the core issue is control. Cynthia Fuchs writes in, “[Flight] makes it too easy to read addiction as a moral failing, a lapse of judgment that the rest of us might judge easily. But the issue is not morality. It’s not having control.”Possibly, hidden underneath Whip’s drug and alcohol addiction is an internalized reflex to control his black image. Throughout the film, Whip operates with an illusion of control. In an effort to help him, Whip’s recovering addict white girlfriend Nicole (Kelly Reilly) invites him to an AA meeting. Whip unwillingly obliges. In the middle of the AA meeting, Whip feels extremely uncomfortable with what he perceives to be preachy, and goes home alone. Later, when questioned by her, they argue and she leaves. Whip yells behind her “I choose to drink!” He actually yells at the audience too, as he almost directly faces the lens. This urge to underscore his control, by denying a major weakness, works against Whip accepting his lack of control. His motivation might be very well linked to a generational trait in which he has found himself; As his forefathers policed and categorized black images with brush strokes via “good vs. bad” or “positive vs. negative” binaries, Whip, a stone cold alcoholic, works really hard to project a positive image against fanning the fire of popularized and mediated black pathology.

Whip is the son of a Tuskegee airman who, after the Second World War, continued flying planes for his crop dusting business in Georgia. As Whip’s dad was a Tuskegee airman, it is highly probable his father and grandfather both would have been imbued by the ideology of the New Negro spearheaded by Booker T. Washington[1] among others. This movement was about laying the enslaved “old negro image” to death and reviving a “new negro image”predominantly by projecting and underscoring a highly positive imagery signified by “education, refinement, and money.” In his 1900 anthology, A New Negro for a New Century, Booker T. Washington states:

The negro of today is in every phase of life far advanced over the negro of thirty years ago. In the following pages the progressive life of the Afro-American people has been written in the light of achievements that will be surprising to people who are ignorant of the enlarging life of these remarkable people.

Military success by Black Soldiers on the battlefields—in the civil war, WW1 and others—was a key component of the New Negro image. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains, “of this anthology’s eighteen chapters, no less than seven are histories of black involvement in American wars…” Living up to the New Negro image and exemplifying a masculine military might, Whip’s father would have ultimately added to the project of creating a purely positive representation.

Enter Whip Whitaker. This post-New Negro generation Blackamerican would have felt the burden of positive representation and projection embodied by his father. This burden might have added to an inability to accept his heavy alcohol and drug addiction. He couldn’t accept, let alone announce, his drinking problem, as this would have constituted race treason; Coming out as an alcoholic Black man would be almost backstabbing the image that New Negro Exceptionalism highlights. In 1904, Voice of the New Negromagazine published an article called The New Negro Man about the essential qualities —both in terms of character and physical features— of the ideal Black Men, along with 7 portraits.

This list did not have a category for a successful pilot who also happens to be an alcoholic, drug addict and an absent father/husband. These portraits were purely positive prototypes, which did not completely fit in with the complex and diverse realities of the black experience on the ground. As a member of a generation that happened to find the New Negro baton on their laps to continue the efforts to self-project a pristine image, Whip might have felt obliged to project only perfection. So, the more he diverted from the positive image packaging of this ideology in his day-to-day reality, the more introverted and self-denying he might have become.

After he leaves the hospital where he is treated for minor injuries caused by the emergency landing, in order to stay away from news reporters’ abuse, Whip hides himself in his father’s old farmhouse that was home to his crop dusting business. It is interesting that Whip goes through most of the film in this place that he’s been trying to sell for years. This desire to sell the farmhouse stems from a desire to move on from his past. But he actually has not sold it, as he has not moved on yet. It is not in the farmhouse that he faces his demons as the farmhouse is New Negro / Positive Image Projection Territory. Here, he drinks chronically. But he hides it like dirty laundry, instead of facing, humanizing, and challenging his experience. One night, while he is again heavily drunk in the farmhouse, he watches a home video he shot probably ten years ago where his father is playing football with his son.

This is the only time we see Whip, his father and son, three generations all together, within the same scene. Whip’s positioning here is powerful. He is watching two people on the screen from whom he is disconnected; one by death, the other by lack of responsibility. Whip knows deep down that he couldn’t live up to his father’s expectation of an archetypal black Hercules. He also sadly watches the result of that failure reflected in his lack of relationship with his own son. Whip’s addictions might be personal but their repercussions have a direct impact in his relationships, especially with his wife and son. Here, that lack of control deepens as the only way of seeing his son is through an old home video. The disconnect between the complex human being that Whip really is and the image he tries to project –flawless, successful, black man—creates a fragmented individual who is unwilling to face his domestic challenges. Furthermore, this moment of three generations in one scene is important since Whip’s son represents the post-Hip-hop generation; the generation that stands on the other end of the spectrum.

Whip stands in between these two general historical traits; namely the New Negro and Hip-hop generations. As the New Negro era was underscored by efforts of positive representation, the Hip-hop era became a social canvas on which all shapes of black pathology were drawn all the while a prefigured “keepin’ it real” urban authenticity serving as its engine. On the one hand, Whip’s upbringing was fueled by New Negro Exceptionalism, on the other hand, his pilot career would have coincided with the Hip-hop era. According to Akil Houston, “the Hip-hop Generation(ers) are people whose birth years include the period between 1965-1984…[They] are the first to have grown up in a post-segregation United States. These are specific years although much of mass media would create the perception that anything connected to youth culture is the Hip-hop Generation.” This timeframe was emblematized by crime, drug epidemic and urban marginalization –outcomes of Reaganomics–, ultimately popularizing “black pathology” nationwide.

As James Braxton Peterson powerfully argued on a recent TV interview, “there is a tremendous American appetite for Black Pathology.” Intensified media coverage of black-centered homicide and drug/alcohol addiction, typical of the Hip-hop era, would have pressured Whip even more to hide his condition. Some Hip-hop generationers glorified this pathology –either to criticize and call attention to its causes or to shock-and-awe—without any apology, at the same time fitting in to a limited and limiting “Black authenticity.” However, Hip-hop generation’s discourse of confidence —different than the Black pride the New Negro espoused—was not available to Whip while growing up a Tuskegee man’s son, since he was born too early to become a part of the Hip-hop Generation.

In this vein, it is interesting that Whip’s breaking point does not take place in the farmhouse. It rather happens in public. It was always for public perception that he felt obliged to self-project positively. Thus, the cathartic metamorphosis had to happen before them in the spirit of Baptism by fire. It is only in the public eye —whose gaze has historically created, situated, frozen, and interrogated black representations, also prompting black projections to challenge or undo them—that Whip breaks down, accepts his addiction and lack of control. For the first time, he metaphorically flies away from the confines of New Negro Exceptionalist self-representation. During the climax scene, he finally agrees to being an alcoholic and a drug addict. Outside of the farmhouse —the New Negro Territory—and before the judgmental gazes of the public, he taps into his own complex human existence in between his father’s and son’s generations. In other words, he carves a personal space for himself in between New Negro Exceptionalism and Hip-hop“Keepin’ it Real” Limited Authenticity.

This referencing of facing one’s humanity and breaking off from self-imposed enslavement of image projection is further hinted at the very end of the movie. In the very last scene, Whip’s son visits him in prison and asks to interview him for his college application essay entitled “The Most Fascinating Person I’ve Never Met.” It is an emotional and powerful scene, watching a father face his long-avoided son. His son asks him “who are you?”Whip responds with “Who am I? That’s an interesting question.” As Whip begins to respond to his son’s question, credits roll; We as the audience are expected to continue the dialogue and fill in the blanks. Whip’s response clearly suggests an honest attempt at self-discovery. Leaving the rest of the dialogue undone points to a multiplicity of perception, in that, each one of us will have a different perception of who Whip really is. In addition, his son’s question about who he is triggers the reading of Whip’s humanity beyond singular definitions, hence deepening and complicating his identity, rendering it a combination of many attributes and experiences. Consequently, he is neither a black Hercules nor a black dissolute, rather a dynamic amalgamation. This epilogue then compliments the climax scene towards portraying Whip as occupying a more complex human space beyond New Negro’s representational burden.

Talking about prison, one sore aspect of Flight is how it underscores the prison system as an ideal rehabilitative abode for black pathology. Reminiscent of Denzel in Malcolm X, Whip announces to a number of prison mates that he is free for the first time in his life —being sober for about a year and taking control in his life. Even though this epilogue might work for Flight’s plotline, it nevertheless whitewashes and distracts from the realities of the American prison system given its overall poor record of disproportionate incarceration, high recidivism and low rehabilitation rates. The prison system as a solution is suspect in the most modest assessment. In reality, in and of itself it might be viewed as a cause of the problem, instead of a solution, especially for the black community. A quick look into Michelle Alexander’s book New Jim Crow would be more than sufficient to get a glimpse into the realities of the prison system with its intricate connection to Blackamerican males. Hence, Flight’s almost rosy portrayal of the prison, which projects it as a desirable and a curing location for addiction and criminality, is problematic to say the least.

Considering the above reading into Whip Whitaker’s psychological motives vis-à-vis generational traits of black representation, especially given the fact that this is a high budget, Hollywood flick, Flightis commendable in referencing human complexity –although limited– in a black male body.

Usame Tunagur works as a video producer at Everest Production whose mission is to create programming promoting diversity and multicultural celebration. His short films have received numerous awards and screened globally at various film festivals. He is also a recipient of the 2010 National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications Award for the TV show, World in America.

[1] There are a number of important visionaries and leaders within the New Negro Movement, who happened to disagree on major points. The debate between W.E.B. DuBois and B.T. Washington is possibly the most well known among these. However, they all agreed on representing the race in the best light. Being a Southerner and a Tuskegee Airman, Whip’s father would have most probably been more drawn to a Washingtonian New Negro than a DuBoisian or later a Lockean one.

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