8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

2 Guns 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Few actors lend a movie instant credibility the way Denzel Washington does. I don’t know how you decide what movies you end up watching, but for me, it’s usually a question of first and foremost who the director is. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney aside, I want to see Gravity crazy badly because of Alfonso Cuaron. That said, there are some actors whose presence can sway me entirely on their own to see something they’re starring in. Daniel Day-Lewis is the most obvious example, since he tends to have such selective and keen discretion when it comes to picking roles, and he’s the most exciting actor to watch in movies right now, except for maybe Matthew McConaughey.

But Denzel Washington comes pretty close to the top of the list of actors many people will seek out at the theater whenever he has something new coming out. Right now the movie he’s appearing in is 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg, and I honestly don’t know who the hell directed or wrote it or is appearing in it with those two but Denzel’s presence alone makes me want to see it. Unlike Day-Lewis, he doesn’t always pick projects that are interesting on their own—pick just about any Tony Scott collaboration for an example of this—but it’s often his work in them that gives them their most interesting quality. He has a way of overpowering the screen quite unlike anyone else I’ve seen aside from Marlon Brando or Orson Welles, that quality that exudes masculine bravado in a number of forms, whether physical, psychological, intellectual, inspirational, or hierarchical. And he can do that just by laughing.

Here are 8 outstanding performances in which Denzel Washington just absolutely brings it.

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1) Training Day

Training Day 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Washington finally won his first Academy Award for Lead Actor in 2002 (having only won one Supporting Actor award previously), but he probably could have won a few times before. It was as if Training Day was just the last in a string of remarkable performances and while it stands out as certainly one of his very best, the award was almost retroactively in honor of the consistent brilliant roles he had been playing in the years leading up to that year, as Oscars often do. That’s more a testament to what was an outstanding career over a decade ago than to detract from his portrayal of corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in this film, which was written by David Ayer who has proven himself an excellent police story teller.

The film is perhaps the greatest example of the range of expression Washington is capable of even over the course of a single movie. Here we get to see him be charming, intimidating, aggressively and violently assertive, and fearful. While he isn’t the lead character of the film, he’s the main character, the one we want to understand the most and see the most on the screen. Denzel Washington has a way of having that effect on an audience—being so electrifying, whether he’s playing a good guy or an evil dude, that you want to watch him the entire time, and when he’s not on the screen, you’re constantly wondering where he is and what he’s up to. Even—or perhaps especially—when he’s playing someone as unpredictable and sinister as Alonzo Harris.

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2) Flight

denzel washington flight 16x9 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

I think when we look back on 2012 it will be hard to believe there were so many great lead acting performances in a single year. Most years, work like Denzel Washington’s in Flight would have meant Oscar certainty, but then there was also Daniel Day-Lewis being inhabited by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to compete with, not to mention Joaquin Phoenix working on another plane (so to speak?) in The Master and Hugh Jackman nailing Jean Valjean.

It may have been the most subtle and devastating performances of the year. Washington in the part of Captain Whip Whitaker paints a fairly tragic portrait of the disease of addiction, and the cycle of lies that must be maintained to keep that addiction from being made apparent to others. We see the old truism that the first step to recovery is admitting to having a problem, and Whip’s inability to be honest with himself and recognize his alcoholism snowballs into a web of lies he spins for everyone around him. Washington makes every bit of this struggle abundantly obvious while preserving the sense that he, as Whip, truly believes he is passing as sober. The earnestness with which he depicts Whip’s feelings of defeat in the face of all his challenges, mixed in with overcompensating levels of confidence, is commonplace for Washington but nevertheless crucial to the movie. Robert Zemeckis said that he had to change how he edited the film to make it match the unique rhythm of his lead. That’s a credit to an expert director’s flexibility, as well as to an actor who continues to surprise his audience after decades of solid work.

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3) The Hurricane

Hurricane 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Keeping in the tradition of great actors like Brando and De Niro, Denzel Washington underwent the necessary rite of passage by playing a boxer in The Hurricane in 1999. This movie demonstrates some of the peculiarities of Washington’s acting style. He comes out of the theater, and so he’s one of those actors—another one who comes to mind is Kevin Spacey—that has found this sweet spot between that necessarily demonstrative style required for the stage and the understated expressiveness that the intimacy of movie close-ups allows for. That is to say, he can play really big and really small, obvious and subtle, often at the same time or at various points over the course of a movie. I think of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the movie version of The Producers as an example of stage performances not translating all that well onto a screen.

This comes to mind when I consider The Hurricane because much of Denzel’s performance is laid out for all to see. He goes completely for broke. Playing a man desperately trying to get out of prison, this is smart, and appropriate. It may take someone as comfortable on a stage as Washington to pull off this monologue, or dialogue with himself, that he delivers as Rubin Carter in solitary confinement. Other times we see him unable to contain his emotions behind the visitation glass; we can’t hear him, but we know exactly what he’s saying. It’s a whirlwind performance, and one of his career’s very best.

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4) Malcolm X

Malcolm X 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

There’s probably no performance among the series of epic performances by Denzel Washington that’s more epic than his epic portrayal of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s epic 1992 joint, Malcolm X. This was a biopic made back before biopics were treated cynically or as old hat; Lee and Washington took their time, over three hours in fact, to give this significant American figure the deliberation, contemplation, and scope that he deserves. It’s curious that movies like this can’t quite be pulled off in this way anymore, the way Malcolm X or Gandhi were once portrayed on film.

Another aspect about Malcolm X that is very clear is how appropriate he is as a thinker for Spike Lee to depict on screen. The central thoughts in Do the Right Thing were a part of this on screen dialogue epitomized by two contrasted quotes by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Malcolm, however, is shown to have moderated his views over time, and this duality, the two sides of his identity and philosophy that are pulling on the Malcolm character, are brought up beautifully by Washington’s performance. He makes him as complicated as he needs to be, not a saint nor a zealot, but a man in a state of constant learning, seeking to improve himself and his fellow African American people. From this point on it was clear that keeping Denzel in the background of a film was virtually impossible. He was the type of lead star who needed to be front and center.

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5) American Gangster

American Gangster 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

He may play heroes and villains and everything in between, but Denzel is never predictable in the way he approaches a role. In American Gangster we see him on the other side of the law compared to Training Day, although the distinction is fairly dubious. I’m sure it’s a conscious choice, then, that he alludes to one of his famous lines from Training Day, the cleaned up version making the occasional appearance in American Gangster: “My man.” He flips back and forth between seeming like a benevolent criminal and a monster, and that’s just in the first act of the film.

For the most part, his take on Frank Lucas is remarkably subdued. He seems genuinely concerned with family and loyalty. He’s reacting to an economic system that’s blatantly unjust. And yet he kills without batting an eye. Frank is as complex as Alonzo but less forthcoming, or perhaps more in control, when it comes to his dark side. We’ve seen him let loose in plenty of other roles, and he gets to here on occasion, but it’s done with a little added delicacy, a concern for appearances, and guarding against recklessness and mistakes, for the most part. Mostly, seeing Washington as a kingpin or leader of a business empire lets him take up more screen time, and when he gets to play around the way he does here, it’s going to be a fascinating watch.

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6) He Got Game

He Got Game 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Hailed as Spike Lee’s best movie since Malcolm X, it was no accident that it was also a reunion with Denzel Washington. I’m not entirely sure whether the premise—a convict father who makes a deal with the state governor to try to convince his son to play basketball at the governor’s preferred college—is preposterous or not. It probably is, but the literal details matter less than the emotional ones, the relationship between the father and son, and the gorgeous images and movement mixed with the positively overpowering score.

An underrated quality of actors, and I say this from a position of basically no authority whatsoever so take it as an observation from an utter non-expert, is the ability to hold up the performances of fellow actors they are sharing the screen with. He Got Game stars NBA star Ray Allen—needless to say, not a seasoned actor. His performance is decent, but it’s the scenes with Denzel as his dad where he gets in some really solid moments, and allows this tense and difficult relationship between father and son to be explored and felt. He may give up the spotlight more than usual in this film but it has to be considered some of his finest work.

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7) Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Yes, it was a Disney movie, but not only did it resonate with audiences in a big way, it featured perhaps the best example of Denzel Washington playing a straight up good guy. But think of it in comparison to other sports movies, and the leads they feature. Having a coach like Denzel, or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, gives a sports film an immense boost in credibility, and gravitas, and sheer quality. There’s plenty of corniness and manipulative emotional moments, but somehow having Denzel at the helm makes it serious. It helps that he has the perfect amount of steadfast defiance that becomes the trademark of Coach Herman Boone. The political message of the movie is the central focus, and so the character of Coach Boone is of less importance, so Washington’s role is well served to advance that message and to make it resonate. It’s also kind of neat that the movie ushered in some young talent of the day, including Donald Faison, Hayden Panettiere and a baby-faced clown by the name of Ryan Gosling.

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8) Glory

Glory 8 Epic Performances By Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington’s first Academy Award came after a breakout performance in the 1989 Civil War film Glory. It’s easy to see why, most of the time, the Chris Rock joke about the two scariest words to a black actor (it’s Chris Rock who does this one, right?) are “period piece.” This movie is a little different; yes, Denzel is playing an ex-slave with anger issues and probably PTSD and all sorts of stuff, but he gets to be a defiant soldier so it’s not all bad. Most of the powerful moments in the film feature Washington’s character, usually somehow making Matthew Broderick aware of how hard it is for black people in Civil War America and how he should think about this whenever he decides to do anything.

The movie also brings me back to the central defining quality of Denzel Washington, and a greater point about the value of movie stars. So-called character actors are often celebrated for their ability to inhabit a role, to disappear into a character, and be unrecognizable from movie to movie. A film like Glory shows how impossible it is for a performer like Denzel to do that. He steals the show. Every time he’s in the background of a shot, even when Morgan Freeman is making a damn rousing speech, our eyes are drawn to Denzel’s character. At least, that’s how it is for me. And judging from his roles in the 25 years since, that seems to be the case for most audiences and directors. This is a rare quality in actors, and while it’s highly valued, it feels too often underappreciated or taken for granted in film writing. He’s proven himself a talented artist behind the camera in movies like Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, but Denzel Washington‘s greatest work has to be when he’s a movie’s main man.

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  • blackmistressdiva

    Maybe not one of his best roles, but Man on Fire was great. Probably my favorite Denzel film.