Killers, Slaves and Butlers: Isaiah Washington on African Americans and the Academy

Isaiah Washington in "Blue Caprice"
Isaiah Washington in "Blue Caprice"

Isaiah Washington has had his ups and downs in Hollywood. Still, the disgraced "Grey’s Anatomy" TV star, 50, has come out swinging with an Oscar-worthy performance as a serial killer in the critically-acclaimed “Blue Caprice,” which landed him a Best Actor nomination yesterday from the 2013 Gotham Independent Film Awards.

He shared a contrarian perspective on whether the many African American roles potentially contending for the Academy Award this year – in "12 Years a Slave" and "The Butler," for example -- represent a step forward for Hollywood.

"Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people," Washington told Yahoo Movies while discussing his intense portrait of a character based on John Allen Muhammad, the senior partner in the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002. The "Los Angeles Times" praised the film as "a superb, slow-boil thriller." Critic Gary Goldstein went on to compliment the performances: "The film -- with some creative license -- tracks the relationship between the angry, manipulative John (a masterful Isaiah Washington) and the quiet, susceptible Lee (an equally fine Tequan Richmond) and the irrevocable steps that led to their notorious murders."

The Texas-born father of three has kept a low profile for the past six years since the scandal that resulted in "Gray’s Anatomy" dropping him from the cast. Continuing his riff on the Academy and the images of African American males it honors, Washington said: "That’s why I turned down 'Hustle and Flow.' Whoever said this role would possibly be nominated for an Oscar, like Morgan [Freeman] playing a pimp [in 'Street Smart']. Denzel [Washington] won for playing a slave crying one tear, and playing the most horrible human being that the world thought was the sexiest cop in 'Training Day.' It doesn't stray from the formula.”

[Related: Could 2013 Be a Groundbreaking Year for African American Oscar Contenders?]

Washington emphasized that these are "all fabulous performances. [But] Octavia Spencer is known around the world as the woman who put feces in the pie. It goes on and on." And it goes right back to the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939: Hattie McDaniel for playing a maid in "Gone with the Wind."

That's not to say that Washington would decline the honor of a nomination. "Why not? Why not be invited to the party? I’d love to show up knowing that in my mind I’m rooting for Tequan…. If Tequan wins Best Actor that means Hollywood truly gets the heart and the timeliness of this film, and wants the world to know the importance of the struggle to keep madmen form having firearms."

In light of the recent Washington Naval Yard shootings, the film and its message are particularly timely.

Nor does the actor dismiss movies like "12 Years a Slave" and "The Butler." Washington explained, "The narrative of slaves and butlers is interesting. I come from a family of domestics. My grandmother was a maid and a nanny. My father was a porter."

"The world has seen African Americans as slaves and maids and butlers," Washington explained while expressing his desire for Hollywood to recognize the complexity of black culture on screen. "In my opinion, I’m not sure if the world has ever seen two African American killers portrayed as human beings before the incident."

For that, you have to go see "Blue Caprice."

Watch the trailer for "Blue Caprice":