Denzel's role is a model example

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
EVERY NOW and again an event lives up to its promise; and sometimes our heroes are truly heroic. The phrase "role model" has become the answer to all sorts of questions asked of teachers and parents at the end of their tether with recalcitrant young people. But increasingly, there seems to be little discrimination between celebrity and character.

I have no idea what David Beckham and Victoria Adams are really like, but I doubt if they want to bear the burden of setting values and morals for a generation. Beckham is undoubtedly a great talent; his wife, if not burdened by genius, seems a good sort. They obviously regard themselves as lucky people, unembarrassed by their good fortune in life. But thankfully, both have resisted the temptation to tell us how to live our lives, either by exhortation or by example. They are not gurus and do not pretend to be.

However, there are some people who cannot help but be an inspiration. Last week, I found myself facing a theatre full of journalists with just such a role model by my side. It was slightly daunting. As a broadcaster, I am used to bright lights and unruly audiences. But when you take the plunge into another walk of life, it is the smaller details that matter. How would I get onto the platform? What would I say first to the assembled throng? Would there be chemistry between me and the others? And were my clothes right for this new role?

In the event, it didn't matter because I was on stage with a presence so magnetic that I doubt if those present would today recall that I was there. Taking a break from politics and current affairs, I was fortunate enough to be asked to reinvent myself as an arts interviewer for one night and talk to film star Denzel Washington and his director, Norman Jewison, for The Guardian and the British Film Institute.

The occasion was the pair's visitto London to promote their new film, Hurricane, a life story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter. Carter almost became champion of the world, but in mid-career he was arrested for a murder he did not commit. He spent some 22 years embroiled in the coils of American justice - most of it behind bars - before he was finally freed and exonerated. In that respect, he is no different from many thousands of others who are victims of the American courts. He does, though, have three unique qualities.

First, he is played by Denzel Washington, not long ago voted the sexiest man in the world in one poll. Second, Carter's story was the inspiration for a Bob Dylan song. And third, he is now free, and the struggle to clear his name is the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie. Rubin Carter has all the makings of a modern-day hero.

What with the New Labour emphasis on mentoring and encouragement of organised hero-worship, it is easy to see that when the film hits the streets later this month, there will be a new name added to the pantheon of those maltreated and oppressed by cruel authority.

But part of the film's success lies in the personality of Mr Washington. Both in the film and in real life, he carries himself with a kind of gentle dignity that would put the platoons of loutish sports heroes and sneering musicians to shame. He talked about his desire to be a good actor - no more and no less. He treated the questions from his audience with respect where warranted and with good manners otherwise. He was intelligent and mature.

Might it be too much to suppose that the movie success of people like Washington, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks and the like heralds the return of role models who are more than real-life versions of Ken and Barbie? I don't want to hope too much; but wouldn't it be great to see character back in the headlines?

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