Denzel Washington in 'Training Day,' 'Malcolm X,' and 'Fences'
Photos via Warner Bros. Pictures/Paramount Pictures

The 15 best Denzel Washington movies, ranked

The Hollywood legend is one of the most natural talents in the history of cinema, and his movies are proof.

When you’ve risen through the ranks to be simply referred to by your first name, then there’s no debate about the levels of your success. For an icon like Denzel Washington, who sits comfortably in any conversation about the greatest actors of all time, being in front of the camera is pretty much second nature for him. The Hollywood veteran possesses a unique acting talent that’s second to none, and his illustrious career, which has spanned over four decades, has seen him gain worldwide recognition and numerous awards, including two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and a Tony, amongst many others. 

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Who is Denzel Washington?

Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York to Lennis Lynne, a beauty parlor owner and operator, and Denzel Washington Sr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, who was also an employee of the New York City Water Department. He enrolled in a couple of elementary schools due to his parents’ divorce, attended Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida, and earned a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. After enrolling at the Lincoln Center campus and American Conservatory Theater to study acting, he kicked off his on-screen career in the 1977 made-for-television film Wilma. He rose to prominence playing Dr. Phillip Chandler in a medical drama series called St. Elsewhere. Since then, his profile rose, as he appeared in some of the best movies of the last four decades.

Highlighting Washington’s best movies is surely a herculean task because he’s starred in so many, nevertheless, we’ve managed to put together a list of his 20 best movies, ranked from least to best. 

20. John Q (2002)

Nick Cassavetes’ John Q is a 2002 American thriller drama film that stars Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Kimberly Elise, Anne Heche, James Woods, and Ray Liotta. Here, Washington is John Quincy Archibald, a desperate blue-collar worker who holds a hospital hostage to get his daughter an emergency heart transplant. It’s melodramatic and tense, with Washington elevating the movie with his impressive acting performance that brilliantly sells his plight. While not a critical success, this was easily one of his most believable portrayals.

19. He Got Game (1998)

In this 1998 American sports drama written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee, Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, an inmate in prison for killing his wife, who is granted temporary release to convince his son, Jesus Shuttlesworth, the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country, to play for the governor’s alma mater. This family drama features other talented and prominent acts like Ray Allen, who plays Jesus, as well as John Turturro, Rosario Dawson, Hill Harper, Zelda Harris, and Ned Beatty, amongst others. 

18. The Bone Collector (1999)

In the wake of the serial killer film boom of the ‘90s, The Bone Collector was one of the greats. Starring Angelina Jolie just as her star was rising, the film follows her as a young rookie cop in over her head in a murder investigation. The titular killer is terrorizing the streets of New York and the only one that can help Amelia (Jolie) is a quadriplegic ex-cop. Confined to a medical bed after an accident, Lincoln Rhyme (Washington) helps Amelia solve the case. 

With Amela obtaining clues and Rhyme deciphering, the two make quite a pair. Washington is especially powerful as the brilliant detective who has nothing to live for. Even with no range of motion for most of the film, the actor shows Rhyme’s desperation, intelligence, and ultimately, his desire to live.

17. Remember the Titans (2000)

In keeping with sports dramas, had it not been for Denzel Washington’s performance as Herman Boone — the unsuspecting new head coach to T.C. Williams High’s football team — Boaz Yakin’s true story Remember the Titans easily could have verged on melodramatic and overly inspirational. Instead, this character-driven drama about a newly integrated 1971 Virginia football team went on to become an American classic whose powerful message is as timeless as Washington’s performance.

16. American Gangster (2007)

Ridley Scott, the British award-winning film director and producer, teams up with Washington here for an epic crime saga that is based on the criminal career of North Carolina gangster Frank Lucas. Washington plays the notorious drug trafficker who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Richie Roberts, played by Gladiator star Russell Crowe, is the cop determined to bring Lucas down, and the intense dance between the lead characters makes this an enthralling watch. 

15. The Pelican Brief (1993)

John Grisham’s books will always be popular choices for adaptation and The Pelican Brief is no exception. Hot on the heels of the Tom Cruise vehicle The Firm, The Pelican Brief looks at another angle of conspiracy in the world of law.  Still in law school, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) pens the aforementioned document about the murders of two Supreme Court justices only to learn that she has become a target. Because she correctly surmises the reasoning behind the assassinations, it is now up to her to reveal the truth before she meets the same fate. 

Washington plays an investigative reporter, Gray Grantham, her only chance at proving what she knows to be true. The two form an unlikely team as they both have incentive to get to the bottom of the mystery. Though not necessarily the prime protagonist of the film, both he and Roberts are equal forces in the film and complement each other well. The Pelican Brief may not be remembered as Grisham’s most memorable, but it is still a strong inclusion to the genre.

14. The Great Debaters (2007)

2007 was a good year for Washington. Rounding out his filmography with this feel-good film, The Great Debaters was the perfect palate cleanser after hitting audiences in the gut that same year with American Gangster. This time around, Washington helmed the ship, directing this true story about Melvin B. Tolson, a debate coach at Wiley College who elevates a team of Black high school debaters in a time of Jim Crow laws to go on and defeat some of the most prominent white debate schools, including Harvard University.

13. The Book of Eli (2010)

Post-apocalyptic films may be common fare these days, but there is nothing like The Book of Eli. Unlike a genre full of hordes of zombies, the 2010 film has a different take on the end of the world. After a nuclear holocaust has irradiated the planet, driving people together in communes, Eli (Washington) sets on a path to deliver a Bible to a safe location. Moved only by faith, he comes into contact with people who want their hands on the rare book.

Leader of one settlement, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), understands that possessing one of the only remaining Bibles in existence has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with power. The Book of Eli demonstrates the power of belief and the common theme of rising up against your oppressors. Before Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us burst free from Neil Druckmann’s mind, Washington becomes an equally protective father figure as he and Solara (Mila Kunis) journey across the desolate wasteland to deliver the Bible for safekeeping. Washington in the role of Eli is equal parts compassionate and resilient, making The Book of Eli have incredible rewatch value, if underrated. Especially after you know the twist at the end.

12. Flight (2012)

In one of his greatest performances, Washington here is Whip Whitaker, a heroic pilot whose exploits in a crash landing following a mechanical failure inadvertently thrusts his personal life under the microscope, and the investigation that follows that crash reveals a man who struggles with a drug and alcohol addiction. Washington’s captivating performance here earned him a Best Actor nod at the Academy Awards. 

11. Glory (1989)

This 1989 American historical war drama film directed by Edward Zwick earned Washington his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor after missing out two years prior with an equally compelling performance in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. Between his breathtaking performance in the famed scene where tears slowly roll down his eyes while he brutally endures a flogging and the movie’s gripping plot, Glory is definitely a must-watch.

10. Mississippi Masala (1991)

A romantic drama leaning on the themes of Romeo and Juliet sounds exactly like the kind of film Denzel Washington would make and not like at all. Nevertheless, he knocked it out of the park in Mississippi Masala as the cool, enigmatic, and suave entrepreneurial carpet cleaner Demetrius Williams, who finds himself in an unlikely romance with Mina, an Indian immigrant assimilating to the American lifestyle after she and her family are expelled from Uganda with the rest of the country’s Indian population.

Set in the backdrop of — you guessed it — Greenwood, Mississippi, Mississippi Masala easily could’ve bombed, but thanks in large part to its airtight script and standout performances from Washington and then-Hollywood newcomer Sarita Choudhury, the film became an instant 1990s classic romance.

9. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Mo’ Better Blues is a 1990 American musical comedy-drama film that stars industry bigwigs like Wesley Snipes, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Giancarlo Esposito, Dick Anthony Williams, and the writer, director, and producer Spike Lee, amongst many others. The movie follows the life of Bleek Gilliam — who was brilliantly played by Washington —  a jazz trumpeter whose personal life is in turmoil. The actor once again puts on a moving performance, especially alongside Snipes who equally gives a noteworthy performance as Shadow Henderson, Gilliam’s sax-playing frenemy.

8. Man On Fire (2004)

Before Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning starred together in The Equalizer 3, there was Man On Fire. Filmed a good two decades previous, Man On Fire was in the Fanning heyday. The most talented actor of her age at the time, the rising star appeared in countless films that demonstrated her ability. She was a proper match for Washington, who in turn, has an equally captivating performance as retired CIA operative, John Creasy.

An alcoholic at the onset, Creasy is against forming any and all attachments. This is of course challenged when he meets precocious Lupita “Pita” Ramos (Fanning) in his capacity as her bodyguard. He spends his days by her side in Mexico City on the off chance she gets kidnapped and when she naturally does, he will do anything to get her back. Washington is a performer who can never be put in a box. With every role he gets, he gives a singular performance. This one as a surrogate father battling his own demons is one for the books. That and his dynamic with young Fanning make perfect sense as to why they reunited later on in their careers.

7. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

There’s not much you can say about Macbeth that hasn’t already been said, which is why this modern take on the Shakespearean classic is such a big deal. Washington and Frances McDormand’s dynamic performances are reason enough to praise The Tragedy of Macbeth, but then you have the absolutely immaculate cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and Joel Coen’s laser-eyed vision in the director’s seat, which, it just so happens, was the first time he was unaccompanied by his brother, Ethan on a project.

It’s not every day you get a 400-year-old Shakespearean classic released in 2021 on a streaming platform (Apple TV Plus) that is helmed by two of the biggest and brightest actors in the industry that manages to turn the familiar tale (somehow) into a modern classic. Even non-Shakespeare lovers will appreciate this.

6. Fences (2016)

One of Denzel Washington’s few self-directed movies, the August Wilson-written Broadway adaptation was named by several publications as one of the top 10 films of 2016. Washington stars alongside fellow veteran Viola Davis to deliver a stunning performance that earned the pair a Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, with Davis taking home the award. The film, which takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh, centers around a working-class African-American father who tries to raise his family while coming to terms with the events of his life.

5. Inside Man (2006)

The third Spike Lee-directed offering on this list, Washington stars in this classic American heist thriller film as Detective Keith Frazier, the NYPD’s hostage negotiator in an elaborate bank heist set on Wall Street over a 24-hour period. The actor is joined in this thrilling film by Clive Owen, who plays Dalton Russell, the mastermind behind the tense heist, Christopher Plummer, the bank owner and founder Arthur Case, Jodie Foster as Madeleine White, and supporting performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Dafoe, and James Ransone. 

4. Philadelphia (1993)

To this day, Philadelphia lives up to its massive reputation. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role as Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who is fired from his law firm because of his AIDS prognosis. After his colleagues noticed the lesions on his skin that were a symptom of the disease, Beckett was promptly dismissed. But Washington should not be discounted as his conflicted lawyer, Joe Miller. The actor had the difficult project of portraying a character who was outwardly homophobic towards his client. This was an important dynamic in the film, as producer Ed Saxon told Smithsonian Magazine.

“We said from early on we’re not looking for an audience that knows somebody with AIDS — the audience has a lot more in common with Denzel’s character than Tom’s character. So much of the crisis was about people being homophobic.”

Both Beckett and Miller have a significant journey throughout the film because of the impact they have on each other. They become more fully formed people because of their relationship, and the chemistry between Hanks and Washington doesn’t hurt either.

3. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Charisma and charm are par for the course for Washington, but perhaps nowhere more evident than in Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted from the novel by author Walter Mosley. Written and directed by Carl Franklin, Washington exudes the casual professionalism private investigator Easy Rawlins is known for, but this time around, Easy is in over his head. Tasked with finding a prominent white mayor’s missing wife, Easy embarks on a series of leads that land him in some serious legal trouble. This type of story necessitates a spoiler-free recap, so all we’ll say is Devil in a Blue Dress is by far one of Washington’s most entertaining films, and you’d be doing yourself a favor by watching it.  

2. Training Day (2001)

Training Day, a 2001 American crime thriller film directed by filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, is arguably one of the most popular movies the star has appeared in. Washington plays Alonzo Harris, a corrupt LAPD narcotics officer who puts Jake Hoyt, played by Ethan Hawke, through rigorous trials. Washington’s captivating, eerie, and convincing performance earned him the Best Actor Award at the 74th Academy Awards. Ethan, his co-star, also received a Best Supporting Actor nomination following an impressive performance.

1. Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee and Washington’s best work together, this powerful epic biographical drama film is undoubtedly the best thing the strongest performance veteran has given. He masterfully plays Malcolm X, the American Muslim minister and human rights activist who became a famous figure during the Civil Rights Movement. Washington’s performance here is equal parts inspiring and chilling, and he was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, and a nomination for Best Actor at the 65th Academy Awards. 


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