According to frequent collaborator Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven), Denzel Washington is “a great leader – someone who leads from behind”. With a filmography of 45 features to date, Washington has carved a space for himself as one of America’s most bankable black stars. Handsome and intelligent, commanding, charming, quietly cool but still capable of conveying passionate rage – and arguably unmatched in his sheer star wattage –Washington is a movie star in the classical sense.
Often cast in cop dramas and prestige biopics, Washington represents a school of black stardom that centres on a socially sanctioned version of heroic black masculinity. When given the space, Washington has shown himself able to shatter the prison of his own stardom, demonstrating a remarkable range that includes romantic, neurotic and comedic characters that deviate from the authoritarian heroes he so often plays.
Yet even at his darkest, he’s rarely unlikeable, perhaps because he’s incredibly pleasurable to watch as a screen presence, consistently and powerfully magnetic, with a Hollywood smile and an instantly recognisable laugh. Critic Jessica Kiang described him as “both a pioneer and a throwback, both the first and the last”, in the sense that no black leading man has quite been able to occupy the ground he broke.
Director Edward Zwick
Washington won his first Oscar in an early supporting role as rabble-rousing escaped slave Trip in this period piece about the forgotten African American men who served in the American civil war. A scene lingering on a static medium close-up of Trip as he is flogged is difficult to forget; director Edward Zwick ensures the thick, raised welts from his days as a slave are still visible in the frame. Also memorable are the tears of silent rage that spill from his eyes, an example of the collected cool and stoic black masculinity that would come to characterise Washington’s stardom.
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Director Spike Lee
The first of four collaborations with writer-director Spike Lee is a rare reminder that Washington can pull off a romantic leading man role. As the obsessive jazz trumpeter Bleek, he’s a workaholic, womaniser and all-round nightmare boyfriend, buoyed by Washington’s sensual on-screen magnetism. It’s worth watching for the levity – and the sex appeal – that is noticeably dialled down in many of his later roles.
Malcolm X (1992)
Director Spike Lee
Spike Lee gives fiery, radical leftist activist Malcolm X the classic heroic treatment in his epic biopic, which spans more than three hours. The luxurious running time allows plenty of space for Washington to flex his acting muscles, providing a fully fleshed-out portrait of X the man (rather than X the myth), and his dramatic transformation from flirtatious, zoot-suit wearing womaniser to solemn intellectual, following his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
Director Jonathan Demme
Washington’s star persona as a bastion of black moral “goodness” was threatened by his role as a homophobic lawyer who winds up defending AIDs-stricken Tom Hanks in a high-profile discrimination case. Inevitably, his character’s prejudices undergo a chemical change, and so the risk factor with regard to Washington’s stardom is lowered – but his performance is quietly emotive as a man moved by another’s irrepressible zest for life.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Director Carl Franklin
Carl Franklin’s hard-boiled neo-noir is arguably Don Cheadle’s film, even though his Mouse is a supporting character. Washington stars as the out-of-work Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, whose careful shrewdness makes him a fine impromptu private eye. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, it also draws attention to underlying racial tensions – anxieties that often remain unexplored in similar genre exercises.
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Director Penny Marshall
This remake of the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife is one of Washington’s only “comedies” (and certainly his only straight romantic comedy). Alongside the late Whitney Houston (subbed in for Loretta Young), Washington steps into Cary Grant’s shoes as Dudley, a literal angel sent to help an inner-city pastor regain his faith. It’s a little corny (it is a Christmas movie after all) but cute too, watching Washington horse around with Whitney on an outdoor ice rink.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Director Boaz Yakin
An “inspirational” Disney film about racial integration vis-à-vis American football, set in 1970s Virginia, this is hardly the most critically acclaimed feature in Washington’s oeuvre. However, having watched it countless times as a kid, the image of Washington’s Coach Boone coolly taunting Caucasian quarterback Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and asking him “Who’s your daddy?” is firmly etched into this writer’s memory. Authoritarian, cocky, but driven by a sense of justice, this is perhaps the quintessential version of Washington.
Training Day (2001)
Director Antoine Fuqua
On the other hand, Washington’s turn as undercover narcotics officer Alonzo marked Washington’s ability to play against type – and won him a second Oscar. A violent, foul-mouthed antihero determined to ensure rookie beat cop Jake’s (Ethan Hawke) first day on the job is as lively as possible, Alonzo is an example of Washington the badass, all leather jacket and maniacal, throaty laugh. Clichéd dialogue is delivered with utter conviction, including Alonzo’s iconic (and supposedly ad-libbed) “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” speech.
Antwone Fisher (2002)
Director Denzel Washington
In his directorial debut, Washington slots himself into a supporting role as naval psychiatrist Dr Davenport. Davenport patiently coaxes titular sailor Fisher’s (Derek Luke) story of childhood abuse from him as he struggles to confront his traumatic past. There’s an unmistakable tenderness simmering beneath Washington’s stern, spectacled psychiatrist, despite his severe demeanour. This innate and intractable sense of right and wrong is an essential part of Washington’s star persona.
Director Robert Zemeckis
Since the early 2000s, the quality of Washington’s filmography (although not necessarily of his performances) has dwindled, relying too much on his stock role as a smooth and controlled action hero. Here, he’s an alcoholic desperado, a pilot with a deadly swagger, fuelled by sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. There’s pure pleasure in watching him coked-up and shades down, strolling down a hotel corridor to Joe Cocker’s ‘Feelin’ Alright’. Flight is by no means a perfect movie but Washington’s stardom elevates it to otherwise unreachable heights.