Count Denzel Washington back in the Best Actor Oscar race — again. The two-time winner for Best Actor in Training Day and Best Supporting Actor in Glory has actually been nominated seven times, most recently last year for Fences where he also earned an eighth nomination as producer of the Best Picture nominee. Washington also won the SAG award for that film, the first time he grabbed that trophy. You can count on him to be in contention again for both with his riveting character turn in the title role in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Sony Pictures sprang the movie on the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday night, a last minute booking at the Ryerson in a move clearly designed to make a statement and stake a claim in this season’s nascent awards race. Judging by audience response and buzz afterwards, the film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, was a hit — even if it feels a bit long at 133 minutes, and certainly will be a prestige entry when Sony releases it on a platform basis starting November 3rd.

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As a defense attorney with strong 60’s activist-bred idealistic driven beliefs, Washington creates a more unique look than ever before for this character (he even took the caps off his teeth for the first time). It is the kind of part that is catnip for the Academy’s actors branch and Washington can be assured of a place in the race. In fact, even though the season is still young, he could end up posing the most serious threat to presumed front runner Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour which had its World Premiere last weekend in Telluride and turns up tomorrow night here in Canada. I could easily see it landing in other categories as well, including Best Picture where Washington is also one of the producers with Todd Black, Jennifer Fox and Brian Oliver.

Columbia Pictures

Gilroy, whose first film was 2014’s sensational and creepy Nightcrawler  which brought him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination and starred Jake Gyllenhaal, is back prowling the streets of Los Angeles for this legalese tale that also stars Colin Farrell as a slick defense attorney, and the very fine Carmen Ejogo and Nazneen Contractor. Gyllenhaal, by the way, slipped into the theater and sat directly behind me just as the film was about to roll for its first official public screening and World Premiere. He said he was so excited to be there to support Gilroy who also brought Nightcrawler to Toronto, so it seems to be a good-luck festival for him.

Both Gilroy and Washington appeared for a Q&A following the screening and talked about the attraction of making this film which Gilroy said he wrote over the course of a year with Washington in mind. In fact, he said if the star had said no he would not have made it. “The film for me came down to the burden and blessing of believing in something and the importance of believing in something greater that yourself. Also what can happen when that gets let go and this struggle to try to get back to that,
the spirtual nature and battle of what gets you up in the morning and the loss of that. And Roman is somebody as he says never left the front lines,” Gilroy said. He added it doesn’t matter which side of the political equation you are on. It’s something most people could identify with.

Washington talked about the physical transition, particularly putting on considerable weight which he joked was easy. He simply didn’t work out. He also said he doesn’t really like talking about the process of creating the role, but rather just likes to play it. Ultimately, Gilroy said he doesn’t believe this is a message film. “I think it is whatever you take out of it. We are not here to give answers, but just to be more tolerant of people and be more aware of human dignity and the spirit. That’s one of the reasons I cast Denzel. I always see in his performances and now that I have gotten to know him and he is a man committed to certain things and they are unwavering, and I know Roman’s character very much exhibits that,” he said.