“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” takes a unique approach as a film about autism since its portrayal is made from the vantage point of an African-American lawyer with Asperger’s Syndrome,” Nils Skudra
By Nils Skudra
On a recent occasion I had the opportunity to watch the film “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” starring Denzel Washington in the title role as a Los Angeles-based lawyer with Asperger’s Syndrome. As with many films dealing with autism, the protagonist is a savant who is superbly accomplished in a particular field (in this case, law) but struggles mightily with significant social challenges, such as the tendency to be awkward socially, miss social cues and to speak one’s mind directly, even at the cost of other people’s patience or respect. The film astutely portrays numerous signs of Roman’s Asperger’s diagnosis, including an early scene in which we see his kitchen shelf stacked with perfectly lined rows of peanut butter which he routinely eats for dinner. This moment is illustrative of a common tendency among many people with Asperger’s Syndrome since they follow their own particular routine in any range of activities, from always eating a very specific type of food, having it arranged in a certain way on one’s plate (often not touching other items) to keeping the water piping set according to their own distinctive (rather than a stereotypical) preference. This tendency is similarly illustrated in the acclaimed “Good Doctor” miniseries whose autistic surgeon protagonist, Shaun Murphy, always eats a stack of pancakes with chocolate syrup for lunch and complains when the water piping in his apartment is not fixed in the distinctive way that he is accustomed to.
Roman’s social challenges as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome are highlighted in a variety of ways, including the normally clinically described difficulty with making eye contact and the tendency to continually voice his opinions without regard for the perspective of those around him as well as to lack empathy for others. While speaking directly is sometimes praised as proof of autistic individuals’ propensity for scrupulous honesty, it can often get them into trouble since inattentiveness toward other people’s input may lead to censure and ridicule from those who do not understand the challenges associated with autism. This is sometimes referred to in the clinical literature as “mindblindness”, the inability to make inferences about what another individual is thinking. This is demonstrated early on during a courtroom scene in which Roman raises objections that are overruled by the presiding judge. In spite of these motions, he continues to voice the reasons for his objections rather than following instructions to stay on board with the case, prompting the irritated judge to hold Roman in contempt for his failure to comply. Roman’s behavior in this scene is significant as an indicator of the shortcomings of direct talk as a trait associated with autism, as well as the problems of following communication since it is critical for lawyers to follow proper courtroom procedure, and therefore reserving one’s opinions in the event of an objection’s overruling is essential for maintaining the judge’s good graces.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” takes a unique approach as a film about autism since its portrayal is made from the vantage point of an African-American lawyer with Asperger’s Syndrome. People of color on the spectrum seldom receive primary focus in movies that address the themes of autism and its associated challenges. Rather, the norm is to portray autistic protagonists who are white, and in other films I have seen which do portray characters of color with autism, such as “Mozart and the Whale,” they are typically presented as background characters rather than playing a significant role. In addition, autistic individuals of color not only encounter discrimination by the wider society as disabled members of racial minorities, but they also often suffer marginalization within their home communities on account of, more specifically, their diagnosis which some people regard as mental retardation. In light of this, the film’s portrayal of an African-American protagonist with Asperger’s Syndrome makes a significant leap in diversifying Hollywood’s portrayals of the autism community as well as indicating how autistic individuals of color tend to be viewed both by whites and by neuro-typical members of their home communities.
Despite its strengths in portraying the characteristics and social challenges associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, a substantial flaw of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is its failure to explicitly identify the protagonist’s diagnosis. Although he exhibits characterological signs of Asperger’s, Roman never discloses his neuro-divergent identity, nor is it specifically referenced by his colleagues. One scene which could have shown promise in this regard features a conversation between the protagonist and his employer, George Pierce (portrayed by Colin Ferrell), in which the latter voices his criticisms of Roman’s conduct and its ramifications for their law firm, expressing concern that Roman “may not be fully functional” for the demands of the job. This would have been an excellent point at which to explicitly identify Roman’s Asperger’s diagnosis as a reason for George’s doubts about his protégé’s abilities, as well as an opportunity for Roman to explain his neuro-divergent identity and the strengths and challenges that accompany it. The film’s failure to clarify this issue leaves room for ambiguity as to the reasons for Roman’s behavior, as neuro-typical viewers who are unfamiliar with autism may infer that he is merely eccentric, an assumption which would potentially reinforce accusations that the film makes an inadequate representation of autism.
In summation, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a well-crafted film in its portrayal of autistic behaviors and social challenges, which Denzel Washington astutely captures. The depiction of an African-American protagonist with Asperger’s further serves the goal of diversifying film portrayals of autism and thus carries the potential to inspire future films that revolve around autistic protagonists of color. However, the failure to explicitly reference Roman’s diagnosis as the basis for his social challenges and intellectual gifts makes for an incomplete portrayal that leaves open the potential for incorrect assumptions about autistic behaviors, with the effect that autistic viewers may feel unfairly represented in films that do not specifically identify their neuro-divergent identities. For those who are unfamiliar with autism, I would advise that they educate themselves about its associated challenges and benefits prior to seeing this movie so that they can make an informed identification of the protagonist’s neurological condition. And for those in the autistic community who have not yet seen the film, I would advise viewing it with caution in order that they may take its portrayal as a constructive lesson for educating others about the nature of autism and the appropriate ways of interrelating with people who are on the spectrum.