A Charismatic Actor, A Spiritual Purpose, A Violent Film: The Book of Eli

By Daniel Garrett

The Book of Eli
Directed by the Hughes Brother
Starring Denzel Washington
Alcon Entertainment/Silver Pictures, 2009
(Released 2010)

“You don’t know what the river is like or what the ocean is like by standing on the shore. You can’t know anything about life and suppose you can get through it clean.”

—James Baldwin, “The Uses of the Blues,” from The Cross of Redemption

In The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Denzel Washington plays a rather ordinary transit worker, his reputation besmirched and responsibilities mundane, until he gets the attention of a taunting criminal (John Travolta), who threatens the New York City transit system. Washington’s role in another film, with Chris Pine, Unstoppable, also features a runaway transportation threat. His career has included art and entertainment, sometimes, but not always, in the same film. Denzel Washington has given good performances, performances of charm, dignity, shrewd intelligence, restrained but vivid passion, and wit, in many good films (For Queen and Country, The Hurricane, Mississippi Masala), several of which—Glory and The Great Debaters and Malcolm X and Philadelphia immediately come to mind—have historical significance. In The Book of Eli, directed by the Hughes Brothers, Washington uses his charisma and mystique to create a character in the wilderness, a man carrying a precious object, an object of cultural and spiritual value, a book, for which he wants to find a worthy place: Eli, a man who is heroic and humble.

The Book of Eli (2009) takes place in the future, when there has been environmental catastrophe and war; and like the film The Road we see an America that is desolate, in which most people are desperate, and have reverted to a near-animal state, some of them giving in to cannibalism. In John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), the lessons that the father teaches the son come out of personal experience and reflection; but here in The Book of Eli, there is a return to an ancient text, an old religion. The values on offer in The Road are subject to questioning, to testing, whereas there is something assumed about the values in The Book of Eli, and that attaches something sanctimonious and sentimental to the endeavor. Yes, they are good values, such as compassion and selflessness, rooted in religious belief: the values that help people to be more humane, and that give life both meaning and purpose, and sometimes make it possible for people to live together; although it is true that conflicts motivated by differing interpretations of those values have inspired crusades, wars. There are books written since then, books written in modern times, which offer a comprehension of human experience and history beyond the wisdom of an ancient, nomadic desert people, books that address uniquely contemporary phenomena.

Yet, Denzel Washington’s presence compels interest, and his conviction compels respect if not belief. He is, here, a spiritual disciple and also a warrior, and as a warrior he dispatches his opponents with a cutting efficiency. It is hard to object to Eli’s recourse to violence when the fights are begun by groups of dirty, vicious men who insist on fighting Eli, but Eli’s brutal expertise does inspire the viewer to wonder about the worth of human lives and the quality of Eli’s mercy. What does it mean to kill in order to deliver a work of spiritual practice and redemption?

In The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington’s Eli stops in a town to get water and recharged equipment, on his way west; and when his fighting prowess is discovered, he is asked by the town leader to stay and join his gang. Eli refuses; and when the town leader, played by Gary Oldman, is told about the book that Eli carries, Eli becomes the focus of an armed search. The leader believes the book can be used to manipulate people in the future, as it has been used in the past. Jennifer Beals plays the blind companion of the leader, and Mila Kunis her daughter, who follows Eli into the desert, as her mother believes the daughter is safer with the stranger than with the town leader. Gary Oldman, beginning to resemble Keith Richards, is coldly maniacal, Jennifer Beals is a beautiful and sad madonna, and Mila Kunis is feisty, sensitive, and somewhat sensual. The quest for a home for the book, and the search for Eli, occur as one might expect, but the telling—in dialogue, event, and cinematography—is captivating enough to make one glad one has seen the Hughes Brothers film The Book of Eli.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett wrote comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader; and on international film for Offscreen and Cinetext. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.