The new movie Amsterdam, starring John David Washington, is a mind-twisting crime epic about three close friends who find themselves embroiled in a murder. Washington plays Harold Woodman, a WWI veteran turned New York City lawyer navigating race, class and a murder rap, in the 1930s.
“That was what was so delicious about diving into the character, dealing with this African-American man who chose to fight for his country, fighting for double victory— which was a real thing back in those days,” Washington tells EBONY. “A double victory for the win of your country and for equality and financial opportunities. And finding a big shock when you get back home because things are basically the same.”
In the film, Harold falls in love with Valerie Voze, a military nurse who cared for him while he was hospitalized in Amsterdam. Margot Robbie stars in the role, making their love affair one that rises above color. “This man was resilient and took pride in his education and wanted to fight the system through the legal system because he's already tried doing it another way. But he still had a life to live. And Valerie was sort of his lighthouse, his opportunity, his way to escape the harsh realities of a country that rejected him,” explains Washington.
As the film blends a fictional who-done-it with real-life historical events, it touches upon the 369th Infantry Regiment, one of the nation’s most celebrated Black military units. Also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, young men from the New York Army National Guard fought with bravery and honor in World World I, even though they were denied basic rights while training on American soil.
“It’s a big piece of history that's not talked about enough,” declares Washington. “I didn't certainly didn't learn it in school, how they had to wear French uniforms. He learned French from the soldiers. The coup de grace award was awarded to Harold, but he couldn't get the Medal of Honor.”
There’s another homage to Black excellence in the title of the movie. Washington refers to an original newspaper from Harlem, the Amsterdam News, first published in 1909. “Shout out to the props department who found that,” he states. “It was these little touchstones, these tangible things that help transport you into the character and into the time period that was very sensitive when it comes to race relations.”
What drew Washington to this project was its exploration of what’s beyond bias. “What I loved mostly—what transcends race, racism, and all these things—is love, companionship, friendship. I think that has no color,” he says. “To me, that was ultimately what I loved to service—that message.”
Amsterdam opens in theaters October 7, 2022.