Movies

Denzel Washington’s Personal Obsession Takes Over His Latest Movie

The director returns to his favorite subject matter in A Journal for Jordan—and the movie is worse off for it.

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan stand face to face, smiling.
Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in A Journal for Jordan. Sony Pictures

You can trace Denzel Washington’s fascination with fatherhood as far back as his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. In that film, Washington portrays a Navy therapist helping a young, temperamental officer move past his propensity for violence, as well as intimacy problems with his girlfriend, caused by the sexual abuse he suffered from as a teenager. In The Great Debaters, also directed by Washington, his character coaches the students of Wiley College, a historically Black institution, to face their white debating counterparts in 1930s Jim Crow South. And in his adaptation of the August Wilson-penned play Fences, as Troy Maxson, Washington shifts from the ideal paternal Black father to a bitter, complicated bully to his athletically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), the complex, hostile relationship between father and son demonstrating the effects stifling racism and stunted dreams can have from one generation to the next.

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As a director, Washington gravitates toward films about Black father figures, and A Journal for Jordan, his fourth directorial effort, is no exception to this pattern. Adapted by Virgil Williams from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Canedy’s memoir, the tearjerking biopic ostensibly chronicles the swooning romance between 1st Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan) and Canedy (Chanté Adams), and his eventual death during the Iraq War. It’s sweltering and seductive, intimate yet surprisingly funny, featuring a delightful performance from Adams in the kind of romantic adult-focused cinema missing from theaters. But to its detriment, A Journal for Jordan unnecessarily sidelines Canedy’s story in lieu of a father-oriented narrative.

In A Journal for Jordan, Washington and Williams alter the source material to not just better center the relationship between King and his son Jordan (Jalon Christian). To do so, he smooths over the differences between Canedy and King: The pair first meet at Canedy’s father’s home (he used to be King’s commanding officer). Canedy is immediately smitten by the shy, polite—but dashingly handsome—soldier. They go on a couple dates in spite of her reticence to date an army man, only for her to fall for his charm and sculpted body anyway. (There’s a full shot of MBJ’s posterior that sent the audience in my theater into pure ecstasy.)

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Washington and Williams, however, purposely obscure the full extent of Canedy’s reluctance toward dating King in real life. Rather than a cinematic head-over-heels love affair, in her memoir Canedy recounts their on-and-off dating, occurring over a period of years, during which she avoided total commitment to King for fear of his nomadic career, hopping from army base to army base possibly impeding her journalist dreams. Instead, the few bumps in their relationship are resolved quickly to give the appearance of a fairytale romance wherein Canedy is trapped under a spell—who could resist Michael B. Jordan?—rather than a woman with enough agency to choose when she wants to be in a relationship. Can’t a hard fought love be as cinematic, as strong, as a sweeping romance?

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Washington obscures Canedy’s career-oriented side in other ways, too: There are only three scenes of her in a newsroom, and they mainly emphasize her role as a wife and mother. The first occurs with her confronting her editor after he assigns a young white, underqualified reporter to her story. It ends with her lactating. Another happens when she briefly calls King to tell him about her “How Race Is Lived in America” assignment. The final one takes place during September 11, 2001, in which a horrified Canedy stares at the breaking news footage in the shocked newsroom.

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Unlike her memoir, these fleeting scenes can’t capture her sterling career as reporter: the full extent of her “How Race is Lived in America” series, which netted her the Pulitzer Prize, her role during the 2000 Presidential Election as the national bureau chief in Florida, and coverage of September 11. And when the movie does acknowledge this, it’s to highlight her as a mother, such as the aforementioned lactation scene, or her immediate worried response as a spouse, fearing for King’s safety from a now-impending war rather than going a step further to spotlight her journalistic abilities.

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Washington’s desire to fully center King instead shouldn’t come as a shock for viewers. For Washington, the Black father is paramount to the health of a Black family, especially for the children. “If the father is not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. I saw it in my generation and every generation before me, and every one ever since. If the streets raise you, then the judge becomes your mother and prison becomes your home,” explained Washington to TheGrio in 2017. The stereotype of the absent Black father haunts Washington’s work. It’s why so many of his films are about young Black men finding hard Black father figures. It’s why, for Washington, it’s critical for Black men to have paternal role models, and imperative for Jordan to learn about his dad. It’s also what might have drawn him to a story that called for a younger actor to take the reins—this is Washington’s first directorial effort not starring himself as the father figure. It signals a new generation of Black dads.

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In Canedy’s book, published in 2008, Jordan remains a toddler. The second half of the movie, however, concerns an older Jordan trying to connect with his late father by putting into practice his lessons for becoming a good man: They include respecting women, remaining true to your morals, and working hard. This makes sense. Staying in the confines of Canedy writing to a son the audience would barely hear from would be cinematically boring. But similar to the early recounting of Canedy and King’s relationship, the new structure makes Canedy a supporting character in her own story. Her narrative importance extends no further than being King’s cipher for Jordan, allowing Jordan to experience a similar kind of personal growth as the students in The Great Debaters or as Antwone Fisher.

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Washington and Williams could have accomplished the same aim while retaining some depth to Canedy by more closely following her memoir. In the book, Canedy doesn’t trust the army’s recounting of King’s death: They tell her he died instantly from a roadside blast. She sets about employing her investigative reporting skills by finding all the relevant witnesses—King’s comrades, his commanding officer, and the doctor who treated him at the hospital—and interviewing them to reconnect the dots. In this scenario she isn’t solely a mother or a grieving widow, but a sharp professional, too. Washington over-simplifies her struggle to a mother-son conversation in which Jordan asks her how his father died and she tells him.

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It’s worth noting that Canedy herself supports the film. She’s appeared on Good Morning America and The View to promote it. “I actually don’t feel it’s about me at all. This is about my Charles and our son. I also wanted to show people both an example of patriotism and of fatherhood. And also of resilience,” Canedy explained to The View co-host Sara Haines. That is commendable. Unfortunately, the messy filmmaking execution doesn’t wholly translate that vision into a fully developed film.

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By the end of A Journal for Jordan, after Jordan gathers the major figures from his father’s life at his father’s grave, you do walk away feeling the immense love both son and widow feel for King. But you don’t walk away knowing anything about Canedy not seen through King’s eyes. The personal voice Canedy provided in her memoir that made her book so thoughtful, so memorable is missing. And while Washington has proven adept at bringing to life stories centering Black father figures, in A Journal for Jordan, he struggles to render Black womanhood beyond a narrow bandwidth.

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