LONDON — Denzel Washington is standing on a public-housing playground in West London, where the film crew for "For Queen and Country" is soaking up some grimy working-class atmosphere: a soccer game on a small fenced-in patch of asphalt. Far from being bathed in a heroic halo as he was in "Cry Freedom" playing South African Steve Biko, Washington now looks rough and ready in black leather.
Although Washington played the character eventually unmasked as a killer in "A Soldier's Story," he has tended to play gentler souls on TV in "St. Elsewhere" and in films such as "Cry Freedom." By contrast, he said, "This guy in 'For Queen and Country' is a bit of a villain, a hooligan who thrived in the organized hooliganism of the Army.
"He's a guy who fought for Britain in the Falklands and finds it frustrating when he tries to re-adapt to life at home," Washington says.
The film is a violent drama of inner-city life, a sort of up-market "Rambo." Washington, whose "Cry Freedom" was also made by a British company, said: "I haven't read a script like this in America. There could be one out there that I haven't seen. I could get angry about it, if I had 10 great scripts that couldn't get done. I've often said I'd like to do a film like 'Coming Home,' and that's what I'm doing--except 'home' in this case is England."
American movies rarely confront the reality of black experience today. "A Soldier's Story" was set four decades ago. So was "Native Son." Few whites saw "She's Gotta Have It." "Hollywood Shuffle" was an in-joke. Eddie Murphy as a cop, an entertaining idea, is perhaps less than fully rooted in reality. At the other end, how typical is Danny Glover's home life in "Lethal Weapon?"
So American capital and an American star have traveled here to confront the reality of the black experience today. Atlantic Pictures is providing about 60% of the backing for the $3.5-million production.
The big difference is the desire of English film makers to put their radical politics into their films, and the American art-house audience's willingness to see the result. The producer of "For Queen and Country" is Tim Bevan, whose company, Working Title Ltd., also made "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie" and a coming drama about South Africa, "A World Apart."
Bevan, who looks more like an undergraduate than a film mogul, said: "Americans won't let themselves make this kind of movie. There are few issues more relevant to American life than the position of a black veteran who can't get a job. Unemployment and racial prejudice are universal issues.
"Here in Britain, the prime minister's answer to unemployment is, 'Get retrained.' That's not very helpful. Thatcherism isn't very helpful for many people. I myself was very lucky to have gone into business during the Thatcher period. It's ironic that people on the left are doing well making films about how ghastly the system is."
Bevan's company makes a habit of fostering the work of new writers. "Queen and Country" was co-written by first-time director Martin Stellman, who is white, and Trix Worrell, who is black.
Worrell said the story is based on events in the life of a friend. "He saw front-line action in the Falklands. After doing the business, he found it hard to settle in civvy street. He got depressed but pulled out of it. He's now with the fire brigade."
Worrell, a first-time film writer though well past 30, says some incidents in the script come from his own life. "Denzel's character is from St. Lucia (a Caribbean island) and so am I. The character's British citizenship is called into question and so was mine."
The film makers are slightly defensive over their choice of Washington. "It's to do with not being able to find someone here," Bevan said. "And you have to be realistic. Our major market is America. Atlantic's money came in after we got Denzel."
"He's a superb actor with a lot of experience," Worrell said. "Black actors in England have limited experience. What are we to do? Not make the film? We spent 2 1/2 years writing this, and there were a number of compromises we didn't make. If we made one compromise in getting Denzel, we still created work for others."
Among the compromises not made is the color of Washington's girlfriend in the film. She's white, a fact that is evident but not commented upon. The relationship reflects the much greater degree of integration in Britain's inner cities than America's.
In Britain, it's more a matter of class than color, Worrell said. "The working class are in it together, so there's more integration. The Irish and the blacks are in it together. The riots here a few years ago were sparked by blacks but whites joined in, though the images the media showed were all black."
"For Queen and Country" ends violently, reflecting the greater amount of violence in Britain today. Crime statistics are soaring, and the nation is still buzzing over several recent cases of mass murder.
"This is not 'black Rambo comes to London,' " said producer Bevan of his film. "It's a street movie. It's an urban Western: a guy tries to hang up his gun but ultimately finds he can't."