Isaiah Washington has a swagger and a loquaciousness that is unparalleled. While visiting Chicago to promote “Corsicana,” a film that he cowrote, produced, starred in and directed, the actor laughed when a Chicagoan commented about his stride. It’s a strong, confident one that has followed Washington throughout his acting career in films that include Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” and “Girl 6,” the Chicago romance classic “Love Jones,” and TV shows like The CW’s “The 100,” Starz’s “P-Valley” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Washington’s gait translates well to his character Bass Reeves in “Corsicana.” Reeves is a runaway slave turned U.S. marshal who made his mark in Oklahoma in the 1800s. The story follows Reeves as he tracks a gang of killers in Corsicana, Texas. Washington embodies Reeves, based on a legendary real marshal who over three decades brought more than 3,000 outlaws to justice. Washington calls the film a Western, a thriller, a true detective story — a non-biopic history lesson that educates and entertains.
“I believe that when people see me up there, they’re going to be just as inspired to want to know more about Bass Reeves,” Washington said. “This man’s righteousness and his ability (he arrested his own son for murder) … if we can be influenced to become rappers and football players to get out of our distressed communities, what would happen if something sparked 10,000 melanated brothers and sisters to show up and apply to be a part of the FBI? … Just like Bass Reeves protected melanated people, we can be in charge of our own communities again.”
The film, Washington’s directorial debut, gives a glimpse of the town that is considered the “birthplace of the Texas oil industry,” where Mobil and Exxon got their start. Washington, a Texas native, said he didn’t know about the historic Reeves two and a half years ago, and that disappointed him. Illiterate, Reeves was well off, having made his money as a marksman and tracker.
Washington came to the project when Reeves was a peripheral character, but when Washington took the helm of the production, Reeves became the lead. Washington said he set out to tell Reeves’ truth as authentically as possible while also finding a balance between the characters in the film without it being solely based on race. Art T. Burton, local author of the book, “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves” was consulted on the project. In doing research, Washington wanted to know and see more about Reeves — something he hopes audiences do as well.
“That’s a good thing for a movie to have you ask more questions,” he said. “I hope there are 3,000 more stories told about Bass Reeves. I’m not interested in the slave trade. I’m done with that narrative. We got so many stories to tell that doesn’t involve segregation and slavery and how our leaders end up assassinated. With me in ‘Corsicana,’ you don’t know where Corsicana is, why it’s important, who Bass Reeves is, why he’s important and Corsicana still exists. There would be no ExxonMobil without what happened in Corsicana, and you put Bass Reeves in there and now there would be no Corsicana without Bass Reeves. That’s the story I’m telling. I take you on a journey, but I also allow you to participate and make you responsible for your imagination. This is about empowerment. I know what it feels like to be treated poorly as a melanated person. I don’t need to show you a movie about what you already know. I will do a movie that’s going to spark a human conversation about commonality.”
Washington was in Chicago for the majority of the week to promote the film, which premiered in Texas in August. Here, he hosted screenings and Q&A events, including at the Roosevelt ShowPlace Icon Theater and a meet and greet in Crest Hill.
Washington attests that “Corsicana’s” message of Black bravery and triumph is an important narrative that Hollywood needs more of, one of empowerment that centers on a real person, not fantasy.
“Hollywood only gives us fantasy to be empowered,” Washington said. “What that tells Hollywood is we can only rally behind films that have us in power through fantasy, or people from other countries playing our heroes, or we can only champion those that the government has assassinated. That’s a pretty debilitating sense of self. You’re only feeling free and empowered for that two hours and 46 minutes and then you walk out the door to be reminded you have no power.”
Washington hopes that “Corsicana” will show the film industry that we can tell our own full stories if they get out of the way.
“That’s the problem I have with Hollywood,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to tell the truth. It takes a whole lot of money to tell a lie. It doesn’t take that many men to seek justice, but it takes millions to pretend to fight for justice and yet somebody poor has to die. You don’t see that in ‘Corsicana.’ They live and win and one of them looks like me. Why do they keep ignoring our history? I’m done with that. ‘Corsicana’ does it all.”
Washington believes if the film has a strong showing in Chicago, that will show that such narratives are both necessary and can draw the viewing public in.
“We’ve got to stop celebrating our demises; stop writing about our pain. Write about our victories. Why are we not asking questions about why we don’t know more about Bass Reeves and our victories? This is a gift straight from the ancestors. There’s so much more to do with Bass Reeves. I’m going to get either 20 movies or 100 episodes out of this before I die. That’s my intent.”
The screening of “Corsicana” will be followed by a question and answer session with Isaiah Washington 7 p.m. Dec. 15 at Cinema Chatham Powered by Emagine Theater, 210 W. 87th St.; www.emagine-entertainment.com
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