For the past few weeks I seem to be stuck in 1989. I can’t help it. It was a great year for film, and I was a fifteen-year-old whose taste was expanding and getting refined at the same time. As for Denzel Washington, he was making the official transition from TV actor to film star. After a seven-year stint on the highly acclaimed “St. Elsewhere” and an Oscar-nominated turn as Steven Biko in Cry Freedom, Washington and film audiences were ready for more. The end of the year would see him win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (his first) as a slave turned solder in the war epic Glory, but it was in The Mighty Quinn when I realized he could be a movie star.
From director Carl Schenkel comes this multi-faceted, multi-cultural joy of a flick that is part comedy, part spy thriller, part musical, part romance, and a complete vehicle for the charm and magnetism that is Denzel Washington. The film takes place on a small, unnamed Caribbean island and stars Washington as the police chief, Xavier Quinn. The locals have monikered him after the Bob Dylan song of the same name based on his popularity and his having studied with the FBI. Quinn is in the midst of marital troubles with his wife, Lola (the luminous Sherly Lee Ralph), when a murdered developer requires his attention. The chief suspect just happens to be Quinn’s former childhood pal and local legend, Maubee (played engagingly by comedian and renown filmmaker Robert Townsend). About the only two people on the island who believe Maubee is innocent are Chief Quinn and his wife.
Complicating Quinn’s investigation in this stylish landscape are the Governor (Norman Beaton), who is worried about tourism, a rival developer (a snide James Fox), the developer’s wife (a sultry Mimi Rogers) and M. Emmett Walsh as a bumbling American agent who is hiding more than a few secrets. There are a few twists and turns, but it’s all about Washington and how he inhabits the role and this world with the grace and charm of Cary Grant, David Niven and Sean Connery, or whomever you deem to be super suave.
What I also enjoyed were the varying and believable relationships Washington has with the other characters. With Ralph, we get a realistic marriage with hints of their playful youth (I like the way his fingertips dance up her arm during an exchange) and how you can see them weather any storm. With Townsend, you get a true sense of a lifelong friendship and how we all seem to have that one friend who never grows up and can find peace in that.
And with Rogers, we get a very powerfully seductive scene. In the scene, Washington needs information that Rogers has. She is willing to cooperative, but she is also a very bored trophy wife and he is Denzel “Friggin” Washington. Rumor has it that these characters kissed, and the test audiences hated it for mostly racial reasons, which is why it was cut. Personally, I’m glad that embrace was left on the cutting room floor because in my mind the scene works so much better without it. To me, the scene is about desire and seduction and the subtle ways in which we can allow ourselves to dance close to the flame without getting burned. In the words of Frank Pembleton, “Virtue’s not real virtue until it’s been tested….tempted.”
The Mighty Quinn also features vibrant music, with performances by Sheryl Lee Ralph and even Denzel himself when he stumbles into a saloon and surprises the patrons and film audience with a charming rendition of “Cakewalk into Town.” About the only complaint I have about this film is its running time of 98 minutes. I wanted to spend so much more time in this world with these characters, but then again maybe that’s how some films get into trouble.
Thirty years later, Denzel Washington has become a true icon in American film. He has won a 2nd Oscar for Training Day (should have won a 3rd for Fences) and is quite the director in his own right. Not sure what is left for him to accomplish though based on his singing in The Mighty Quinn I would love to see him in a musical. His talent and charm know no bounds.