Denzel Washington, like the iconic trailblazer Sidney Poitier, mastered the movie stardom which was long denied to African-American actors of Hollywood. Mr. Poitier emerged at a pivotal time in the history of Hollywood and showed whiteness doesn’t have to define industry’s stardom. And it was in the year the American Civil Rights Movement gained greater momentum, i.e., in 1954,  Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born. The man not only redefined stardom for black actors, but also broke many standardized Hollywood representations of black characters. Most importantly, Denzel Washington is one of the best American actors of all time. The swagger and easy charm of the actor deserves an distinguishable adjective like Washington-ian.

Born to a beautician mom and a Pentecostal preacher dad, Denzel Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. After finishing high school, he enrolled at Fordham University to study journalism. But Washington developed an interest in acting and soon enrolled at American Conservatory Theater. He started his acting career in theater. Subsequently, he made his screen acting debut in 1977 TV movie Wilma. The actor’s first major Hollywood appearance was in the 1981 movie Carbon Copy. Washington’s first major career break was playing Doctor Philip Chandler in NBC’s hospital drama series St. Elsewhere (1982-1988).

Denzel Washington’s transition to the big screen gradually happened during the period he did the NBC series. His first major feature-film role was in Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984). Though he played acclaimed roles in Cry Freedom and Glory, stardom eluded the actor until the 1990s. In that same decade, Denzel Washington played roles that went beyond Hollywood’s version of heroic and dignified black masculinity. From Devil in a Blue Dress, He Got Game to Training Day and Tragedy of Macbeth, the shades of the characters Washington played over the years gradually got darker. But even at his darkest, Denzel Washington is never unlikable. The sheer pleasure of watching this towering leading man on-screen is somewhat indescribable.

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Now let’s take a look at this acting titan’s ten best performances:

10. American Gangster (2007)

Denzel Washington

The barely contained rage and contempt Denzel Washington embodies in Ridley Scott’s sprawling gangster drama keeps us totally engrossed. Washington’s eponymous character is named Frank Lucas, a quiet and subdued 1970s Harlem drug kingpin. However, when the man decides to get ruthless it’s truly scary to watch him. American Gangster opens with Frank Lucas pouring petrol over a rival gang member. He sets him on fire and the screaming figure is finished off with a flurry of bullets. Such hard-hitting portrayal of Lucas’ cruelty contrasts his pharmacist and family man demeanor to the outside world.

Only Washington can gracefully slip between the roles of cutthroat businessman and charismatic patriarch. Washington’s Lucas finds a perfect counterpart in the law enforcement; a relentless and painfully honest detective named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). There’s anticipation for a Heat-like encounter between these men. And this inevitable confrontation moment is brilliantly staged. But what follows is an unflashy observational drama involving the two polarizing figures.

9. Remember the Titans (2000)

Boaz Yakin’s Remember the Titans is a feel-good sports drama with a somewhat formula-driven approach. It employs sentimentality and convenient plotting techniques, triggering our tear ducts to well up. But Remember the Titans is not only based on real-life characters, the struggle it portrays still resonates in modern American history.  It takes us to 1971 suburban Virginia, as tension runs high at the TC Williams High School because it’s going to become a racially integrated school. The school governors also bring a new African-American head coach for the football team.

The self-determined new coach is Herman Boone, although he is derogatorily addressed as ‘Coon’. Since this is a co-production of Disney Pictures, the family-friendly narrative beats are little too familiar. Yet Denzel Washington’s skills and screen presence undeniably elevates the material. In the entire first-half Washington’s Herman commands our attention as he gracefully lets us understand the coach’s firm beliefs. Thanks to the coach, the Titans had a perfect season on the field that year. But more importantly, his players proved to be champions off the field too.

8. He Got Game (1998)

Spike Lee’s gritty drama offers a potent racial critique on the commercial exploitation of baseball games. The director casts Ray Allen, a basketball pro in one of the central roles. Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, a most sought-out high-school basketball player. The youngster is courted by every university coach and prospective agents. Denzel Washington plays Jesus’ dad Jake, a convicted felon incarcerated for killing his wife in a violent domestic dispute. The prison authority offers Jake a deal. He is tempted with the promise of a reduced sentence, if he can persuade Jesus to sign for the State Governor’s favorite university.

Similar to what Washington did in his later films like Flight and Fences, the actor’s inherent charm and largess is superseded by his character’s deeply flawed nature. Jake’s fire and brimstone demeanor is mostly self-destructive and devoid of a meaning. Despite a few unsatisfying subplots, He Got Game largely works because it’s about Jake’s second chance to be a good father. It’s truly moving to see how Jake’s fear and insecurity gradually dissolves and ultimately pushes him to believe in his son.

7. The Hurricane (1999)

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Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane is a heavily-fictionalized tale of real-life boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. In 1966, Carter was wrongfully convicted for a triple homicide that happened at a New Jersey bar. After spending almost two decades in prison, the former middle-weight boxer was exonerated. The Federal Court acknowledged that Carter’s conviction was the result of institutionalized racial prejudice. Denzel Washington’s performance spearheads this tale of perseverance, and hope. Though The Hurricane is largely a prison drama, Washington underwent intensive boxing training to perfectly look like a boxer in the initial scenes.

The intimidating physicality Washington infuses in the earlier boxing ring scenarios morphs into pure hatred and rage when he struggles to comprehend the white man’s injustice. Gradually, as time passes, Washington’s Carter turns into a thoughtful, mild-mannered individual.  He finds inner strength and learns the power of friendship, which eventually helps him achieve justice. Despite the factual inaccuracies, thanks to Denzel Washington’s nuanced Golden Globe-winning performance, Rubin Carter comes across as a compelling three-dimensional individual.

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been adapted plenty of times in both modern as well as traditional backdrops. Joel Coen’s first directorial outing (without his brother Ethan Coen) sticks close to the original play. The stark black-and-white cinematography and the magnificently austere aesthetic bestows the retelling a distinguishable quality. But what’s most striking about Joel’s Tragedy of Macbeth is the phenomenal color blind casting, spearheaded by Denzel Washington in the eponymous role. Washington’s Macbeth is a worn-out, ageing man who cherishes the witches’ prophecy and takes one last swing at glory.

There are few glimpses into Washington’s trademark swagger. But this frayed Macbeth largely remains subservient to supernatural beliefs and his wife’s orders. Moreover, as the mad king, Washington brilliantly reflects the paranoia and internal agony. The actor also delivers the play’s famous speeches and lines in a truthful and unpretentious manner. The ‘floating dagger’ scene is particularly uttered in an ingenious manner. Overall, the film and Washington’s performance brought out new shades of meaning from a familiar story.

5. Flight (2012)

Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated performance in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight came after the actor’s mainstream thrillers Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable. In both the movies (directed by Tony Scott) Denzel Washington played an ordinary man fighting off his inner demons, while rising up to face an extraordinary situation. On the outset, Flight also looks similar. Washington plays veteran commercial airlines pilot Whip Whitaker. When his plane suffers from a malfunction during a severe rainstorm he takes drastic measures to stabilize it. The plane crash-lands eventually, killing six people. But without the pilot’s skilled maneuver the damage would have been far worse.

However, unlike Tony Scott’s thrillers, Flight digs deep into Whip’s psyche in the aftermath of the crash. The spectacular air disaster scene is followed by a complex human drama, where Washington effortlessly plays a sycophantic individual. His performance is unshowy yet powerful, which makes Whip’s redemption arc engrossing without being overly sentimental. As Whip, Washington once again plays against type. His trademark charisma is replaced with the painful expressions of a damaged person.

4. Glory (1989)

Not many Hollywood filmmakers had dealt with the American Civil War (1861-1865) the same way World War II or Vietnam War received its on-screen portrayal. Edward Zwick’s Glory is a rare instance, where the Civil War was perceived from the unique perspective of African-American soldiers. The narrative elegantly interweaves the military conflicts with the social issues of the era. Glory is also best known for the glorious supporting performance of Denzel Washington as the embittered and rebellious Private Trip. The actor’s electrifying performance earned him a Supporting Actor Oscar. Private Trip proved to be his breakthrough role and completed his transition from small screen to big screen.

Just look at the scene where Trip is accused of planning to desert the army. You’d witness the major acting force within this man. As punishment, Trip is flogged in front of the other men. Trip was a former slave and this punishment is outright degrading. Director Zwick employs slow zooms to capture Trip’s agony, pride, and resentment. Gradually, the flogged black soldier’s stoic face melts to shed a few tears. Overall, Washington’s soul-stirring screen presence made Glory’s humane outlook more impactful.

3. Training Day (2001)

Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day marks a vital departure in Denzel Washington’s career. Up until that point, the actor mostly played dignified black characters that were somewhat designed to comfort the white American audience. But in Fuqua’s L.A. based cop drama, Washington enjoyed playing an outright evil and corrupt cop. Washington’s arrogant and cocky Alonzo Harris is a veteran LAPD narcotics officer. Alonzo takes an idealistic white rookie cop named Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) in order to make him more street smart. But Alonzo under the pretense of toughening up Jake withholds quite a few dirty secrets from his partner.

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The self-assurance and fearlessness Washington exhibited in films like Crimson Tide or Courage Under Fire is all there. But the fast-talking Alonzo with a broken moral compass looks as fascinating as he is dangerous. And it’s almost impossible to not root for Denzel Washington even when he is playing a bad guy. Playing Alonzo Harris was a risk at that moment in his career. But the risk paid off pretty well and Washington got his first lead performance Oscar.

2. Fences (2016)

Denzel Washington has often searched for roles that overturned his standardized on-screen star persona. Fences – Washington’s passion project – is one of the supreme examples of the actor playing against type. Of course, Washington has played regular-guy roles in films like Mississippi Masala and He Got Game. But nothing beats the way he intimately showcases a working-class black man’s flaws and vulnerability in Fences. Furthermore, apart from committing to the protagonist role of Troy Maxson, Denzel Washington directs the film with such grace and confidence.

The film is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name. Mr. Wilson himself adapted his play into a script before his death in 2005.  The narrative opens in 1957 and follows the domestic drama in the family of middle-aged Troy, who works as a garbage collector. Troy was once a baseball star in the ‘Negro Leagues’. Beneath the charm and good humor, lies the man’s pent-up resentment and cynicism, which adversely impacts his wife and son. The usual Washington-ian extravagance and charisma is all there. However, Washington’s Troy is a very flawed figure. And the actor brilliantly lays bare his character’s frailty.

1. Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington has got ‘something’ that makes it impossible for us to tear our eyes away from the screen. And when he magnificently embodies the role of real-life civil rights activist Malcolm X, you can’t help yourself but get thoroughly enraptured. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is as radical and controversial as the great man himself. Right from the opening credits, where the American flag burns to form the word ‘X’, Spike Lee immerses us into the stunning dramatization of Malcolm’s life.

The narrative is divided into three segments, and starts with Malcolm’s younger days as a hoodlum. At prison, Malcolm receives his much-needed enlightenment and converts to Islam. He later gets acquainted with the spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad. But soon, disillusionment sets in and guides Malcolm onto an incendiary path.

Malcolm X is the role of a lifetime for Denzel Washington. The actor has done meticulous research on the legendary leader. Since hours of footage of Malcolm’s speeches and interviews were available, Washington precisely emulated his character’s physicality. Most importantly, there’s effortlessness in the way Denzel Washington portrays the man’s bevy of emotions. Interestingly, the actor has played Malcolm X before in a 1981 play titled ‘When the Chickens Came Home to Roost’.

Related Lists:

10 Best Daniel-Day Lewis Movie Performances
15 Best Irrfan Khan Movie Performances

Denzel Washington Links: IMDb, Wikipedia


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