Over the course of his illustrious career, Denzel Washington established himself as one of the most prominent acting talents in the film industry and became a bonafide cultural icon. Considered by man to be the most accomplished actor of this century, Washington has also emerged as a noteworthy filmmaker with efforts like Antwone Fisher, Fences and, most recently, A Journal for Jordan.
Born in Mount Vernon in New York, Washington was sent to a prep school after his parents’ divorce which he recognised as the moment that changed his life. Unlike many of his childhood friends who ended up spending years in prison, Washington went on to earn his bachelors degree in journalism and drama before properly pursuing acting.
Starting out in theatrical projects and off-Broadway productions, Washington slowly gained prominence and graduated towards high-profile films which earned him commercial success as well as positive critical receptions. Currently, Washington is working on his latest directorial project which is titled A Journal for Jordan.
As a tribute to the great artist, we have listed some of the greatest acting performances by Denzel Washington.
Denzel Washington’s 10 best films:
10. The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999)
Norman Jewison’s 1999 biopic features Washington as a middleweight boxer named Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter who has to confront the weight of being wrongfully accused of triple murder. A competent adaptation of Carter’s own accounts of spending almost 20 years in prison, Washington did a fantastic job as the conflicted boxer.
For his brilliant performance, Washington earned a coveted nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards but ended up losing out to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. Despite that, The Hurricane is still regarded as one of Washington’s greatest acting performances.
9. Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)
Partially based on the story of a real plane crash, Robert Zemeckis’ 2012 drama revolves around an alcoholic pilot (played by Washington) who manages to save the day by manoeuvring the plane to safety after a mechanical problem jeopardises everyone on board.
Flight focuses on what happens after this heroic act, emphasising on the investigations which take place after the crashing landing that bring some new evidence about the pilot to light. Flight picked up two Oscar bids that year, including a Best Actor nomination for Washington.
8. Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
This was the film that earned Washington his first Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category. Glory tells the story of the first Black regiment in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The film picked up multiple accolades and was praised for its historical focus.
Washington played the role of Pvt. Trip, a leader of the regiment who takes his agency into his own hands after escaping from slavery. Starring alongside other actors such as Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes and Matthew Broderick, Washington managed to hold his own and shine.
7. American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)
Ridley Scott’s 2007 crime biopic stars Washington as Frank Lucas, an infamous drug lord who built an exploitative empire by smuggling heroin into the country with the help of veterans returning from the travesty that was the Vietnam War.
While Scott’s directorial efforts were underwhelming, Washington’s on-screen magic transforms American Gangster into a must-see movie. It also featured stellar work from Washington’s co-stars like Russell Crowe and Ruby Dee as well as Cuba Gooding Jr.
6. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
Revolving around an elaborate bank heist on Wall Street, Spike Lee’s 2006 thriller features Washington as a hostage negotiator who has to navigate a difficult situation. In order to prepare for the role, Washington studied the figure of Brutus in Julius Caesar.
“We hung out with some New York City detectives,” Washington explained. “Part of the reason I liked the idea of doing the film was because it’s very wordy. This guy talks a lot. And I was getting good practice playing Brutus. So, it’s like, ’Shakespeare Goes to the Street.’”
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021)
Recently, Joel Coen embarked on making his first directorial effort without the partnership of his brother Ethan who has worked with him throughout their respective careers. The result has been critically acclaimed and cited as one of the best projects of the year.
Joel Coen’s interpretation of the famous Shakespeare play stars Washington as the titular figure with Frances McDormand as the iconic Lady Macbeth. For his brilliant work in this new film, Washington has already picked up a bunch of Best Actor nominations.
4. Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993)
Now remembered as the first-ever mainstream Hollywood project made about the ugly reality of the HIV/AIDS condition, Philadelphia featured Tom Hanks in one of the best roles of his career as a gay lawyer who has to hide to who he is to maintain his employment status.
After being terminated from his firm, he hires a lawyer (Washington) to represent him but he turns out to be homophobic. Over the course of the film, Washington gracefully handles his character arc which sees him discarding his prejudices to advocate for human rights.
3. Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016)
Washington’s 2016 directorial attempt attracted all the right kind of attention on its way to the Academy Awards where Washington picked up a nomination for Best Actor and Viola Davis ended up winning in the Best Supporting Actress category.
A film adaptation of a fantastic play by August Wilson, Fences chronicles the difficult socioeconomic circumstances of a Black man’s life in America during the 1950s when race relations were fraught and hatred dominated the cultural climate.
2. Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001)
This was the film that finally got Washington his Best Actor Award at the Oscars, featuring him in a tense crime thriller as a cop paired with an ambitious cop (Ethan Hawke) for a one-day evaluation which takes them into some of the worst neighbourhoods in Los Angeles.
Washington’s win for Training Day cannot be disputed at all because he manages to puncture the self-perpetuating morality of institutions such as the police by playing the role of a highly celebrated officer who is more of a criminal than most prisoners.
1. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)
When Spike Lee set out to make a biopic about the most influential public speaker of the 20th century, many people were doubtful about the casting. However, all those doubts were alleviated when people got the chance to see Washington in the shoes of Malcolm X.
Getting the charisma as well as the intelligence just right, Washington handled the monumental responsibility of conducting a respectful rendition of an intellectual and political giant such as Malcolm X with plenty of grace. It is a crime that he didn’t win the Oscar for this performance, losing out to Al Pacino.