A Controversial Denzel Washington Drama Is Being Added To Netflix

Denzel Washington had a great run in the early 2000s, but this movie only feels weirder and weirder as time goes on.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

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The early 2000s were glory years for Denzel Washington. While the actor has never really had a fall from grace either critically or with audiences, those few years around the millennium saw him in rare form. He won a second Academy Award for his shockingly loud, surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a corrupt narcotics officer in Training Day, portrayed real-life imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, and hunted down the Bone Collector in The Bone Collector. Of course, there were some Denzel Washington movies around that time that did not stick in the public consciousness in the same way. Nobody remembers Remember the Titans. The Manchurian Candidate lost. And John Q. has only become stranger to watch two decades later. The hit 2002 movie is soon to be added to Netflix, joining their streaming library on September 1. 

John Q. stars Denzel Washington as the title character, one John Quincy Archibald. It says something about the subtlety of the movie that his name just happens to be short for a slang term for an everyman; it is the kind of semi-cleverness that could make an executive feel smart when reviewing a screenplay but just tips its hand in the most obvious way possible. Denzel Washington is indeed an everyman, as indicated by his job (he’s a factory worker), the city he lives in (Chicago, not as fancy as New York or glittery as Los Angeles), and the fact that he perpetually wears a baseball cap. John Q. is all about the little guy raging against an unfair system that seeks to cheat him at every turn, but what it says about that is just a little disquieting. 

In the opening moments of the film, we see a young woman killed in an automobile accident. The movie then flashes back in time to Denzel Washington and his wife Kimberly Elise rushing to a hospital; their son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) has a heart issue and will die if he does not get a transplant. Unfortunately, a doctor (James Woods) and a bureaucrat (the recently deceased Anne Heche) essentially tell him he is too poor to save his son’s life and there is no option other than to wait for him to die. Denzel Washington and Kimberly Elise do everything they can to raise money (visualized neatly as a collection plate being passed around in a church), but ultimately, the desperate father does the only thing he can think of: take an ER hostage and demand his son get treatment, or he will start killing people. 

John Q. is part of an odd mini-genre of films around the turn of the millennium that centered on tense hostage situations, like the John Travolta/Dustin Hoffman feature Mad City and The Negotiator starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. This time around, Denzel Washington is negotiated with Frank Grimes (Robert Duvall), who is himself in constant conflict with his superior officer (the also recently deceased Ray Liotta), who refuses to conceive of any scenario that does not involve violent death. Denzel Washington, being good of heart and only resorting to threatening the lives of patients and medical personnel because no one will help him otherwise, wins over his hostages’ loyalty and (via some old-fashioned hacking) the public at large. Denzel Washington became a national news story unfolding in real-time, as evidenced by Larry King, Gloria Allred, and Jay Leno popping in to play themselves. 

The movie (directed by Nick Cassavettes and written by James Kearns) is weirdly not content to use Denzel Washington to highlight the uncaring metrics and brokenness of the American medical system. It also has to double down and reveal that his son’s heart condition was in fact known by doctors, but covered up in order to get a kickback from insurance companies. It is an odd level of extra demonization that makes Denzel Washington not just up against an establishment that will not see him or his son as people, but against actively malevolent, sneaking villains. Frankly, the American medical system is sufficiently bad enough that it does not need it. 

In 2022, it is also strange to see a movie that views an armed man holding people hostage with a gun as a hero. John Q. essentially argues that Denzel Washington is doing the right thing (and gives him the moral out of not actually loading his gun) by threatening violence, and while he goes to prison at the end, it makes sure to let viewers know he won’t be there for long. The movie literally ends with him being thanked. In the twenty years since it was released and countless mass shootings later, it is a little hard to see John Q. in the same way.