As April is Autism Acceptance Month, I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at how autism is presented in different forms of media, and at the same time, I’d be able to to do this in tandem with my entertainment and pop-culture site, The Kat’s Cafe. Over there, I’ll be reviewing it as a movie, tv show, or book; and I will also touch upon the performances of the actors and how accurately autism was portrayed in it. Over here, I’ll be doing a more in depth analysis of how autism was portrayed, why I think it worked or it didn’t work, and how much I could relate to it as well. Aside from films, for this blog, I’ll also be highlighting neurodivergent characters as well, and giving an analysis on each of those characters.
Feel free to suggest other films, books, tv shows, and neurodivergent characters that you think I should review and analyze for this particular blog series!
So, for my first review, I decided to tackle a more recent movie with Denzel Washington’s 2017 outing, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”.
The movie starred Denzel Washington as a lawyer with Asperger’s Syndrome named Roman J. Israel Esq.; Colin Farrell as George Pierce, a hotshot lawyer with his own firm; and Carmen Ejogo as Maya, a local activist. It was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, with cinematography by Robert Elswit, and with a score by James Newton Howard. It first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 10, 2017, and premiered with a limited release in the US on November 17, 2017. It can also be found digitally online.
It follows Roman J. Israel, Esq., a lawyer with Asperger’s Syndrome, whose entire world gets upended after his long time law firm partner, who handled all the public appearances of their firm, suffers a severe heart attack. Because of this, he is forced to engage with clients and co-workers alike after being hired by George Pierce, Israel’s partner’s protege, who runs his firm like a business, which clashes with Israel’s values. Aside from this, Israel has also been developing a huge brief that would help reform the plea bargaining system. The rest of the movie is a compelling character study about Israel, how he reacts to things and the decisions he makes, and how it affected both Pierce and Maya, a local activist Israel met.
Washington was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. It is no wonder that his performance was nominated as he quite literally disappeared into the character, from his physicality, all the way to to his quirks, how he behaved, and how he sees the world.
His diagnosis isn’t really specified in the movie itself, but it is specified in the various interviews that Washington did. Aside from this, it is quite clear from the movie that the characters is an Aspie, from the way he thinks all the way to his poor interpersonal skills.
I felt that Washington’s performance was outstanding and organic, especially from someone who is neurotypical, and I thought that this film did autism right.
As someone with Asperger’s, I was able to relate a lot to the character, in terms of his values and ideals, and with some his circumstances as well.
I believe that “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a film that manages to hit two birds with one stone organically when it comes to diversity as it managed to have a believable and relatable neurodiverse character in the titular character. All in all, it is a wonderful movie to watch for this particular month.
Now, if you don’t want any spoilers for the movie, turn around now, as beyond this point, there will be spoilers!
As mentioned earlier, it seems like Washington really did his homework, as I felt that he was able to believably portray someone with Asperger’s really well and organically, which is saying something as he, as far as I know, is neurotypical himself.
Israel is definitely an Aspie through and through. This can be seen in his behavior, the way he moves, the way he does things, in the way he speaks and thinks, and in the way he interacts with others.
His special interest is law, which is why he can memorize everything from legal briefs to the entire US legal code. This also what allows him to write that massive law changing brief to reform the plea bargaining system, and what makes him a valuable asset in the eyes of George Pierce, the protege of Israel’s former law firm partner.
However, despite that, he has poor interpersonal skills. This can be seen in the way he tries to handle his clients, the way he talks to the judge when he had that one appearance in court, and how he had a hard time fitting in when he was working for Pierce. He also avoids eye contact, but it is done in a very organic way.
He also has a particular set way of thinking, and has a hard time reading social cues. This can be seen in the way he talks to the judge, when he gets excited while talking to Pierce about his massive brief for the first time, and how he handled that meeting where Maya invited him to give a talk at.
He also has a particular way of doing things. He likes peanut butter sandwiches, has his JIF peanut butter jars in a neat row, and wears the same suit over and over again. His life is actually very routine until his partner suffers that heart attack.
I also like the way they showed meltdowns and sensory overload. Israel deals with sensory overload by listening to music and wears earphones when he goes out into the world. In the rare instances they showed this to us, they purposely took out all the background noise and made whatever was giving him sensory overload louder and brighter. They also allowed us to have more of his point of view during these moments, which allow us to experience more what he is going through.
During the movie, I felt that I could relate to him a lot in most of the circumstances he was put in, from having to interact with clients, to job hunting, all the way to his sudden change after he got the reward money from the Armenian mob.
I also like the fact that this movie was able to tell the story of a character who so happened to have Asperger’s without it being too touchy feely or it being a feel good movie. In fact, this is a rare movie that talks about autism without being that way, which, I think, is quite refreshing.
In the end, this movie did fall short of its own expectations, but its depiction of someone with autism, and in particular, of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome was well done. It is definitely one of those movies, I believe, that should be watched, especially during this particular month.
Have you seen “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”? What did you think of Washington’s performance? What did you think of how autism and Asperger’s was done here? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Image Source: Official Roman J. Israel, Esq. Facebook Page