Ever since his breakthrough on the acclaimed television series “St. Elsewhere,” Denzel Washington has proved time and time again that he is one of the best and most charismatic actors working in movies. While he is known for playing the good guy and the father figure we all want to look up to, he has also shown us how versatile he is in portraying the complete opposite of those kinds of characters. Furthermore, it’s hard to think of a time where he’s given a legitimately bad performance. Regardless of what genre he’s working in, this is an actor who always brings his A-game to each project he takes on.
Having said that, picking out the seven best performances Washington has given to date is tricky as it threatens to make all his other performances pale in comparison. Still, there are those movies which show him at his bravest and most fearless as he takes on a role that proved to be seriously challenging for any actor.
Here are those performances in no particular order.
Washington scored his first Oscar nomination for playing real life anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko in the late Sir Richard Attenborough’s film. “Cry Freedom” looks at the friendship between Biko and journalist Daniel Woods (played by Kevin Kline) who at first finds Biko to be a destructive individual, but he quickly comes around to understanding the activist’s way of life and eventually joins in his fight for a South Africa where blacks have the same freedoms and opportunities as whites.
As he would later prove in other movies based on a true story, Washington completely humanizes Biko to where he shows him warts and all, and he fully inhabits this man whose life was tragically cut short. Washington isn’t out to give us an extended history lesson about Biko, and he’s not afraid of showing us the man’s flaws as a human being. Instead, he’s inviting us to spend some time with Biko so that we never forget what he fought for and of the part he played in ending apartheid in South Africa.
Trivia: Washington was cast as Steven Biko after Attenborough saw him in an episode of “St. Elsewhere.”
His role as Private Silas Trip in Edward Zwick’s brilliant war movie earned Washington his first Academy Award and for good reason. “Glory” is about the first formal unit of the Union Army during the Civil War to be made entirely of African-Americans, and Silas proves to be its most stubborn and embittered member as he keeps raising hell among his fellow black soldiers. You don’t have to see those scars on Silas’ back to see how deep his anger is for what the white men did that to him because Washington’s face tells you without words how deep the hurt goes. That’s especially the case in the scene where Silas is flogged in front of the troops for going AWOL. It’s a riveting performance from beginning to end as Washington shows us a man who goes from fighting for himself to fighting as part of a group whose goal is to seek justice for everyone regardless of race.
Denzel Washington on the whipping scene: “I remember walking around before that scene, just praying and calling on the spirits of all the slaves, because I didn’t know how to play it. I was like, ‘Okay, fellas, just tell me what to do.’ And I went out there with an arrogance. I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength — it all came out of this meditation. It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, ‘Don’t let him win.’”
Al Pacino won the Best Actor Oscar for “Scent of a Woman,” but anyone who has seen Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” can confirm that Washington should have walked away with the award that year. Only Washington could have embodied the human rights activist as he portrays Malcolm from his criminal days to becoming a convert for the Nation of Islam and then to the time where he went from preaching black supremacy to rejecting any and every form of racism in the world. It’s a truly fearless performance as he shows us Malcolm with all his strengths and flaws, and he gives us a fully human portrait of a famous figure who, whether you agree with what he preached or not, demands and deserves your utmost respect.
Washington plays yet another real life person in this film, American middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was wrongly convicted of murder. Directed by Norman Jewison, the movie follows Rubin from his early boxing days to the nearly twenty years he spent in prison fighting for his freedom. Many have criticized the movie for its historical inaccuracies (as if no other biopic takes dramatic liberties with the truth), but there’s no denying how emotionally powerful Washington is as we watch him give every last ounce of energy he has to illustrate Rubin’s exhausted but steadfast determination to be exonerated. The late Roger Ebert, in his review of “Hurricane,” said it best: “This is one of Denzel Washington’s great performances, on a par with his work in ‘Malcolm X.’ Washington as Hurricane Carter is spare, focused, filled with anger and pride.”
Trivia: In preparing to play Ruben Carter, Washington worked out for a year with Los Angeles boxing trainer Terry Claybon.
After playing a number of historical figures and good guys, Washington switched gears to portray the manipulative and utterly corrupt LAPD narcotics officer Alonzo Harris. You can tell that Washington is having the time of his life playing a character that is on the wrong side of the law, but he still manages to make Alonzo a complex and very pitiful character that comes to realize he’s not as powerful on the streets as he thinks he is. What I love about his performance in “Training Day” is that he doesn’t just seduce Ethan Hawke’s rookie officer into an unorthodox way of police work; he succeeds in seducing the audience as well into bending the law even if it goes against everything we believe in. When taking that into account, it makes perfect sense as to why this role earned Washington his second Academy Award. After watching him in “Training Day,” you become fully convinced that he could play any character.
Washington on how he got the role of Alonzo Harris: “My son talked me into doing that movie. He was like, ‘Dad, you’ve never done anything like this.’ I just hadn’t been asked before. The only film that was sort of dark that I’d turned down was ‘Seven.’ They offered me the Brad Pitt part, but I was like, ‘This is so dark and evil.’ Then when I saw the movie, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.’”
When I first saw the trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ 2012 film, I figured Washington was going to be playing a heroic airline pilot who gets thrown under the bus for all the wrong reasons. But instead, “Flight” has him portraying one of the most screwed up individuals we could ever expect to see in a movie. Right from the start, it is clear that Captain Whip Whitaker is a drug addict and one selfishly reckless human being as he wakes up in the morning to a bottle of beer and a line of cocaine. But despite his being under the influence, he succeeds in landing a plane after it suffers a serious mechanical failure and saves the majority of the passengers on board. Washington is riveting as we watch him descend into Whip’s den of addiction which he looks unable to pull himself out of, and it makes for one of the most fascinating character studies we have seen in a long time. While we chide Whip for all the things he does wrong in his life, we can’t help but feel for him as he eventually hits rock bottom.
Roger Ebert on Washington’s performance: “’Flight’ segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington—one of his very best. Not often does a movie character make such a harrowing personal journey that keeps us in deep sympathy all of the way.”
Tom Hanks may have gotten all the acclaim for his performance in Jonathan Demme’s movie, but Washington was every bit his equal. In fact, Washington really had the harder role to play as his character, personal injury lawyer Joe Miller, is openly homophobic and initially not interested in representing Hank’s character in a wrongful termination lawsuit, but he later changes his mind when he sees that the law has clearly been broken. Washington makes us empathize with Joe even as his homophobia reeks of his ignorance of both gays and how the AIDS virus is actually transmitted. “Philadelphia” contains one of Washington’s most underrated performances as he grounds his character in a reality we can all understand and relate to. Not once does he go over the top and strive for an effect, and while his character doesn’t fully overcome his flawed belief system, he does show that Joe becoming more sympathetic to the plight of others.