Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington recently stressed the importance of involved fathers as the key to positive change in the black community. Rather than join the chorus of black leaders and civil rights activists who tend to primarily blame slavery, discrimination, and a corrupt criminal justice system for many problems facing the black community, Washington—who portrays a civil rights attorney in his latest movie—chose to focus on the family.
In an interview with Reuters promoting the movie, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Washington said:
I grew up with guys who did decades (in prison) and it had as much to do with their fathers not being in their lives as it did to do with any system. It doesn’t start with any system,” he added, “It starts with how you were raised.”
Washington’s statement contrasts sharply with comments by Dan Gilroy, the movie’s writer/director, who said in the same interview that our prison system needs reform because “it’s not racially equal, it’s not socio-economically equal.”
Since he plays a defense attorney representing minorities who’ve been imprisoned without a trial, we might expect Washington to be talking about racial injustice at promotional events. But rather than blame the system, the actor again pointed to the family at a recent screening of the movie in New York City, where he told The Grio:
It starts in the home. If the father is not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. I saw it in my generation and every generation before me, and every one since. If the streets raise you, then the judge becomes your mother and prison becomes your home.
This is not the first time the actor has spoken out about the importance of black fathers. In a 2012 GQ interview, when asked what he would tell black men, he said:
Take responsibility. One of the things that saddens me the most about my people is fathers that don’t take care of their sons and daughters. And you can’t blame that on The Man or getting frisked…
While his comments may be controversial in Hollywood circles, Washington is right about the negative effects of father absence on children, particularly for boys who are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, committing crimes, and ending up in prison. This is especially true in lower income and minority communities where fatherlessness is more common (a recent census report found that about 50 percent of black children live in mother-only families, versus less than 20 percent of white children). As this Institute for Family Studies research brief shows, black boys are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and less likely to graduate college if they grow up in single-mother families, compared to those who grow up in married families.
Washington witnessed the impact of father absence on many of his peers in the Bronx where he grew up. Most of his friends’ dads were not around, and many of those boys ended up doing time. While his own father, a Pentecostal preacher, was in Washington’s life, he was often away at work or church. As Washington told The Guardian, his parents’ divorce when he was fourteen negatively impacted his relationship with his dad, who grew more distant. When the actor began to rebel, his mother made the crucial decision to send him to a private boarding school.
“That decision changed my life, because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going,” the actor told Parade. “The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”
Thankfully, Washington had a resilient single mother whose swift actions and consistent discipline kept him off the streets and helped buffer some of the harmful effects of divorce in his life. It’s no surprise he credits her with his success. “What would have happened to me had it not been for my mother?” he asked in one interview.
Denzel Washington is a powerful and much needed voice in a culture that doesn’t talk enough about the link between family structure and life outcomes. Although we’re beginning to recognize the vital role fathers play in child well-being, we often overlook how the strength or weakness of a child’s family life can shape everything from behavior and educational achievement to future relationships and financial success. Let’s thank Denzel Washington for reminding us that the family matters and that real social change—including the strength to overcome the effects of racial injustice—begins at home.
Image: Paramount Pictures