Denzel Washington is one of the rare actors identified and recognized by his first name alone. There is only one Denzel, just as there’s only one Leo, Meryl, and Keanu. Since the mid-1970s, Washington has enthralled audiences with his magnetic charisma, raw honesty, and intense commitment to each role. Washington has been cited as the greatest actor of the 21st century, with one Tony, two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to support the claim.
At 68, Washington remains very active in Hollywood, having recently reprised his role as Robert McCall in The Equalizer 3. With no signs of slowing down, we took stock and attempted to narrow down his illustrious career to the seven best Denzel Washington movies. Let the arguments begin.
Washington has received seven Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, winning one for his role in Antoine Fuqua’s crime drama Training Day. Washington stars as Detective Alonso Harris, a dirty LAPD narcotics officer tasked with evaluating Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a rookie officer with ambitions to become a good detective.
Over one day, Alonzo brings Jake through the crime-ridden streets of Los Angeles as the duo experiences the war on drugs firsthand. Alonzo’s questionable methods are unethical, much to Jake’s dismay. By the end of the day, Jake must decide whether to risk his career to enforce the law or remain silent and watch Alonzo continue with his illegal activities. Thanks to a larger-than-life performance as a corrupt cop, Washington became the first African American to win Best Actor since Sidney Poitier’s victory for 1963’s Lilies of the Field.
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After collaborating for Mo’ Better Blues, Washington reunited with writer-director Spike Lee on Malcolm X, the epic biopic about the famous African-American activist who rose to power during the civil rights movement. Washington stars as the titular activist and chronicles Malcolm Little’s life, from his early days as a criminal in the 1940s to his incarceration in the early 1950s.
While imprisoned, Malcolm becomes a Black Muslim, and upon his release, emerges as a leader in the Nation of Islam with a new name, Malcolm X. Washington’s depiction of Malcolm X is considered his magnum opus and one of the best depictions of a historical figure in movies for the last 50 years. Legendary director Martin Scorsese and influential film critic Roger Ebert named Malcolm X one of the 10 best movies of the 1990s.
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In 1995, Gene Hackman was one of Hollywood's five greatest working actors. Hackman was just three years removed from winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Unforgiven. As acting royalty, Hackman’s costars needed to be strong actors or risk getting blown off the screen by the legend. Washington not only held his own against Hackman but went on to outshine the legendary actor in multiple scenes where they shared the screen.
Directed by Tony Scott, Crimson Tide depicts life on a nuclear missile submarine during the Cold War. The experienced Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) chooses Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington) as his second-in-command. When the submarine receives a conflicting order to launch missiles, Ramsey wants to act immediately, while Hunter preaches patience. Their differing styles cause a schism on the submarine as Ramsey and Hunter go toe-to-toe for control. Crimson Tide is an action thriller that relies on dialogue to provide suspense, a feat only accomplished because of the greatness displayed by Hackman and Washington.
He Got Game
He Got Game is not a typical sports movie. Most sports dramas are underdog stories where the protagonist must overcome adversity to play in a championship game or match. Spike Lee’s He Got Game is not concerned with winning. The film focuses on the exploitative nature of college basketball and explores the fractured relationship between a father and son.
Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) has been in prison for six years after accidentally killing his wife. While incarcerated, Jake receives an intriguing offer from the warden: convince his son, Jesus (Ray Allen), a top basketball recruit in high school, to sign with the governor’s alma mater, Big State. Jake gets to leave prison for one week, and if he succeeds, the governor will reduce his sentence. The only problem is that Jesus despises his father. As expected, Washington is excellent as the hard-nosed father, but Allen’s performance becomes a lasting memory, featuring some of the best acting from a professional athlete.
After a successful run on television in St. Elsewhere in the 1980s, Washington transitioned to film acting. The role that flashed his movie star potential was Glory, Edward Zwick’s Civil War drama about one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army. Matthew Broderick stars as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The African-American soldiers in Shaw’s unit include Silas Trip (Washington), John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), and Thomas Searless (Andre Braugher).
After being accused of desertion, Trip receives a flogging in front of the entire company. Trip removes his shirt, revealing vicious scars on his back. The powerful image of a single tear running down Trip’s face as he stares down Shaw was a star-making moment for Washington, who went on to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.
Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) is an alcoholic pilot alcoholic who turns to drugs to stay awake. However, Whip’s morning hangover worsens after a malfunction causes the plane to freefall. Whip manages to regain control of the plane before executing a crash landing that saves 96 of the 102 people on board. Despite receiving praise for his heroic actions, Whip breaks down because the ensuing investigation forces him to confront his demons.
Despite his efforts to get sober, Whip fails to break his addiction, relying on the bottle to cope with his problems. Flight is best remembered for its excellent yet terrifying crash sequence. However, Washington’s harrowing performance as a tormented pilot battling addiction becomes the reason to watch.
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Remember the Titans
Because of his immeasurable presence onscreen, Washington excelled as a disciplinarian football coach in Remember the Titans. The year is 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia, and the town experiences integration with the all-black and the all-white high schools. Herman Boone (Washington) is hired to coach the high school football team, a decision that divides the community.
After convincing former head coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) to join his staff, Boone faces an impossible task: form a cohesive team despite racial tensions tearing the players apart. Boone succeeds, but the town rejects the idea of a unified team. Though the film takes some liberties in depicting the actual events, Remember the Titans is an inspirational crowd-pleaser, mainly due to Washington’s believability as a football coach and commitment to the role.
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