Social justice warriors are incredibly strong and persistent in their never ending battle for equality for all people. Important historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks are icons, forever immortalized in history books for changing the world, one idea at a time. But often times, those social justice heroes seem larger than life, and it can be overwhelming attempting to emulate their example and trying to figure out how one person can make real change in 2017's problematic social and political landscape. That's why Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a breath of fresh air.
While the film (in select theaters Friday, Nov. 17, everywhere Nov. 22) stars Denzel Washington as Roman, a struggling, idealistic civil rights lawyer stuck in the past who gets caught up in a dangerous breach of ethics, leading to thrilling action and drama, it's actually the movie's B-plot that absolutely shines with Carmen Ejogo as Maya, a social rights activist who befriends Roman.
A young social justice warrior working on the grassroots level with more realistic views of the world, Maya ends up suffering a crisis of conscience while getting to know Roman. She subverts the idea of what most expect to see from human rights activists. She shows her exhaustion with fighting systemic racism and even expresses her doubts that all her work may be in vain if they can't effect real change.
Because audiences see her struggle with fighting for her beliefs despite everything stacked against her, it's all the more inspirational. She's a real person, with flaws and doubts and insecurities; she's someone that people can actually relate to. She makes the idea of continuing to fight for what's right out in the real world seem like an actual attainable goal, because she's not some indestructible superhero like all these historical figures seems to be.
"It's rare to see [a character like this] because I think one assumes that you have to only sell the traits that you are trying to most project in a character, especially a character like mine when she's onscreen so little. There's not a lot of time to explain her," Ejogo tells Bustle, sitting in a quiet room in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel earlier this month. Maya is indeed only in a fraction of the film (which also stars Collin Farrell as a lawyer who woos Roman over to his top-tier law firm, the catalyst for Roman's change in ideals), but her few scenes are the most memorable for their real-world stakes.
"I hope people take away a sense of appreciation for the power within themselves to be agents of change," Ejogo says. "That would be a great thing to take away from this movie. Patience and perseverance are wonderful things to find in oneself."
As the film progresses, Maya wavers in her conviction in her fight for social change, and Ejogo was grateful that she was allowed to play a character that wasn't just one-note in her belief in her work and herself. She isn't worried about her character being "confusing for an audience" because she's a real human.
"In the few moments I have in this film, to bring that complexity was amazing because that's what makes it relatable and honest," Ejogo says. And this isn't the first time she played someone fighting for human rights. Before Roman J. Israel, Esq., she played Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife Coretta Scott King in Selma, and she realized even then that "you had to bring in the vulnerability and the flailing, all the insecurity they felt at times, because ultimately we're all ordinary people."
Calling it the "greatest lie we've been sold," Ejogo hates how society often looks up to the wrong people, just because they've curated a "perfect" aesthetic on social media or occupy a powerful seat unearned.
"It's often the people who seem to have the most menial parts of our lives on a daily basis that are the people that without which, our days don't function," she says, referencing Roman who goes about life unrewarded for all his monumental civil rights work. "It's an absolute myth that we've been sold that it's these other kinds of larger-than-life characters that we follow on Instagram or people in positions of power in society that somehow they are the ones who should be looked up to. It's often the people that are paid the least, given the least attention, given the least glory, are the ones that really deserve most of the honor."
Because it's those people who work every day to make the world a better place that are the true heroes. Nothing makes them more special than the next person except their will to keep on fighting.
"None of us are born with greatness, it's something that's learned and something you have to make mistakes and fail before you can come to a place of transcendence," Ejogo says. "It's a real gift to play someone that is clearly in flux, that's having a bit of an existential crisis when it comes to her work and beliefs because it's important for people to recognize that everyone struggles. It's how you handle that struggle that defines you."
Ejogo knows that the importance of fighting for what's right no matter what has never been more relevant, and she hopes to inspire young women with Maya's journey in the film.
"I think it's so easy in this day and age to be apathetic and give up on something, even if you believe strongly about it," she says. "To think that the odds are against you and the systemic ways society is designed these days, that's going to to work against you and to think you can rise about that sounds like an incredibly tall order."
She pauses to catch her breath, then continues, "But in fact, I recognized that it's really everyday people, it's not extraordinary people, it's actually very ordinary people that tend to make real change. When they believe collectively that it can happen is when it actually manifests." That's why Ejogo responded to the character of Maya so much.
"Those kinds of ordinary heroes are the ones we need to be recognizing and celebrating," she adds. "They live within all of us and it is achievable, when you have a goal, if you remain aspirational and optimistic about the capacity of change by real people."
A call-to-arms has never sounded so realistically attainable before.