It’s been over 20 years and Training Day remains one of the benchmark roles for Black actors. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the 2001 film follows rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on his first day with the LAPD’s tough inner-city narcotics unit. The morals of the rookie cop will come into play the longer he follows his corrupt commanding officer, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Now, Denzel Washington was an established name before taking one of his more iconic roles as Glory was the film that earned him his first Academy Award. However, in one of the rare moments in cinema, a Black actor got a chance to showcase his talents in a lead villain role, and it helps that Alonzo Harris just so happens to be a corrupt police officer.
Why? From films like Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing or John Singleton‘s Boyz N the Hood, we always got the perspective through the eyes of a Black man on how cops typically views them in society. Racial injustice is a real life issue that’s unfortunately plagued the African American community for decades; however, the unique perspective is that Alonzo Harris is a Black man on the side of the law. This isn’t anything new, as the films mentioned above also featured Black officers in blue uniforms; however, we’ve never gotten a moment to understand why these men are siding with the people who see them as nothing more than thugs or criminals. To be clear, I’m not saying that all police officers have this view point about Black men. In fact, I know this is a case where it’s more of the minority who sees us as low down dirty scums. However, having Washington play the corrupt man with a badge challenges viewers to understand that it isn’t a Black and blue situation. Bad people are bad people, not matter if you’re white, Black, blue, green, or whatever race you’re playing.
It’s Not About Race
However, the beauty of the role of Alonzo Harris is that it’s never about race. Why is Alonzo Harris such a corrupt soul? Obviously, he came up with that entire scheme to kill Roger, so he can pay back the Russians, but the desperate move to survive isn’t the reason Harris is such a douche. It’s stated that Harris was just like Hoyt when he was a rookie, so what happened during that time that made this heroic cop turn into such a power-abusing tool? He’s a Black man coming from the hood who is holding his own people down; Interestingly enough, if Alonzo Harris is such a top cop, why is he still living in one of the most violent neighborhoods in California? Is it the fact that he sees himself as the king of his community and knows that those people don’t exactly have the power to fight back because of their status? It’s a fascinating layer to Harris’ character and one that keeps him compelling throughout. He can be charming, cruel, and even sympathetic.
In the infamous “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” scene, Harris feels as if he’s on top of the world despite Jake having the drop on him. However, once he realizes that he isn’t getting that money back, he shifts gears and genuinely seems scared. Even the false bravado of him lighting a cigarette and saying, “What a day” exemplifies the humanity behind such a monster.
Denzel Washington Plays the Role With Ease
Washington was simply brilliant in this scene. The improvised line is always a classic, but the fact that he’s able to showcase the different layers of his character without it ever feeling forced or phony is tremendous. It highlighted that Black actors can be more than just gangsters, drug dealers, or criminals. That was typically the type of roles Black actors had during this time; Sure you would see an occasion role like Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress), Malcolm X, or Captain Steven ‘Eagle’ Hiller (Independence Day), but notably, those are all protagonist roles. Villain roles in the vein of Alonzo Harris were very few and far in between.
It helped emphasize that evil comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Alonzo Harris is an iconic figure in cinema for more than just a single scene; He represents the incredible depth of our diverse world, and more importantly, highlighted that Black actors are on the same level of talent as their White counterparts when they’re given a role that they can really sink their teeth into.