Tall, striking and well-mannered, Denzel Washington seems to have been around Hollywood forever, popping up as a lead in a blockbuster every few years. Since the mid 80s he has risen to prominence in Hollywood, and is constantly cast in leading roles. He is almost 60 (in December), but still looks very much the same age as he always has, and his latest film, The Equaliser, has just been released to generally positive reviews.
Washington was nominated for his first Academy Award in 1987 for the category of Best Supporting Actor for the film Cry Freedom, and he later went on to win his first Academy Award in 1989 in the same category for Glory. He was nominated for the Best Actor Award four times, winning it for Training Day in 2001, when he became the second African American actor to win this award (the first being Sidney Poitier). He has been nominated for, and won numerous other awards over three decades of acting. He is a family man and has been married to his wife since 1983 whom he met while filming his first television series, Wilma.
Washington’s filmography is vast, so choosing the best of his films is a difficult task. He has worked with some incredible directors, such as Richard Attenborough, Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott and Spike Lee. He had a brilliant collaboration with the late Tony Scott, in which Scott directed and Washington starred in Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable. It’s a real shame that these collaborations have ceased to exist.
He has portrayed a number of well-known real life characters in his films over the years, such as The Hurricane and Malcolm X. He has natural charisma, presence and likeability that makes any character he plays more interesting, and can make even the most mundane film watchable (not that he is in many mundane films).
15. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Although this was a remake it still deserves a place in the best films of Denzel Washington. Washington plays Major Ben Marco, a war veteran who begins to doubt his Army unit, and the fact that during the Gulf War Raymond Shaw, a Sergeant (played brilliantly by Liev Schreiber) became a war hero for ‘supposedly’ rescuing members of their unit. After this event Sergeant Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honour, thus enabling him to launch a career in politics.
Ben was knocked out during the ambush so his memory of the event is hazy, and he has been haunted by nightmares ever since. During the Gulf War it appears that soldiers may have been kidnapped and brainwashed for sinister purposes. Ben sets out to investigate whether this could be true, and whether the unit were brainwashed to believe that Shaw is a war hero. Is there therefore a spy in the White House?
Washington gives an excellent performance as a paranoid man in this tense psychological thriller, proving that Washington can fit in to any character role he is given. Washington does ‘paranoid’ proud, all sweat, fear and crazy eyes. As in the original, the paranoia is portrayed so well it seeps through to the viewer making them feel paranoid too.
The film is also supported by excellent performances from other cast members including Meryl Streep and Jon Voight, and brilliant direction by Jonathan Demme. It is a tense, captivating, thrill ride full of twists and turns, psychologically haunting and certainly an excellent remake.
14. Remember the Titans (2000)
Remember the Titans is a sports drama based on the true events of African American coach, Herman Boone (Washington). The film portrays Coach Boone as he attempts to introduce a racially divided team when he is hired to lead the football team at the local High School.
The Southern ‘white’ high school becomes integrated with black students from a school in the same area, and when the black coach, Herman, is chosen to be the head coach of the new team, the previous white coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton) feels some animosity to Herman as he has been made to be ‘beneath’ a black man. Members of the team clash in racially motivated arguments, however Boone’s rigorous training leads to harmony within the team.
The film is a moving tale of adversity and courage, depicting teamwork in the face of prejudice, with heartfelt performances from Washington and Patton. The huge success of this film is mostly due to the enigmatic and magnetic performance of Washington, he is tough, but he is passionate and he cares greatly.
13. Cry Freedom (1987)
Cry Freedom was directed by the late, great Richard Attenborough. It is set in the 1970s throughout the apartheid era of South Africa, and focuses on the true events of activist Steve Biko, played by Washington, and Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), a white journalist. The film focuses on political corruption and discrimination.
Donald follows Biko in his courageous journey as an outspoken anti-apartheid activist, and along with Donald’s wife (Penelope Wilton) the three become friends. Tragically however, Biko is murdered by government troops, his activism sadly leading to this consequence. Donald and his family ensure the world find out the truth about Biko’s life and death to ensure that he did not die in vain in this moving, dramatic story of injustice.
The second half of the film struggles slightly due to the lack of Biko, Washington’s performance bringing Biko to life in such a way. He is quietly and calmly in control of the character he plays. Washington plays the part with charisma and passion, making a dignified characterisation with conviction, portraying a man who just wants justice in the country in which he lives. It is such a wonderful performance from Washington, it was surprising he didn’t win an Academy Award for such a masterful performance.
12. The Great Debaters (2007)
Washington directs this film whilst also starring as Melvin Tolson, a hard-working debate coach with extremely high standards, based on a true story set in Texas in the 1930s. Tolson is trying to get his debate team on the same level as a debating team of white debaters. It is an inspirational tale, following the story of this brilliant team, and its remarkable coach. The team must learn to survive and get past the racism, oppression and discrimination in the world in which they live, whilst educating themselves further.
Washington directed and starred with ease in this wonderfully acted and deeply inspiring film. The film has the added bonus of him being behind and in front of the camera. He is at his best here, passionate and determined putting in an exemplary performance.
11. The Equalizer (2014)
Washington plays Robert McCall in what could be described as a quite common action film role these days, of a man with a particular set of skills fighting for justice in an unfair world, but he excels in this film. By day he works at a DIY store, being a great friend and advisor to his colleagues. As an insomniac by night he visits an all night diner where he befriends a young prostitute played by Chloe Moretz.
When she is attacked by the gang that control her, Washington sets out to try to buy her life back from the mob. Clearly it was never going to be easy however, and things don’t quite go to plan. The mob have no idea who they are dealing with, and Robert begins to take them out one by one. From then on he finds himself drawn in to a world where he becomes a knight in shining armour for her and countless others, and he must have his wits about him as the mobs dangerous enforcer (Marton Csokas) finds out who he is, and begins a vendetta against him and his friends.
Washington plays the role perfectly in this brilliant exciting thriller; watchable and charismatic as ever in his latest role. He may be nearing 60, but he plays this role as he would have at 40, determined, passionate and portrays so much expression through his eyes in scenes in which there is no dialogue.
10. Philadelphia (1993)
Washington plays Joe Miller, an attorney, in another of Jonathan Demme’s powerful, heartfelt and moving dramas. It was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to have a main storyline about HIV and homosexuality in a time when there were a lot of myths about the disease. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a successful lawyer, liked and respected by his peers.
One day at the law film where he works one of his colleagues spots a lesion on his forehead. Soon after this he is fired, for disputed reasons to do with a case Beckett has been working on. Beckett knows he has been unfairly sacked and seeks representation for a law case against the firm. Joe Miller, the Attorney hired to represent Beckett has little knowledge about HIV, and is therefore worried that he could catch it and suffers with a slight case of homophobia himself.
Washington fits into hot shot, young, full of it American lawyer like a dream, strangely likeable even with his homophobic views. He takes the case as he is passionate that a law has been broken, although he is still slightly homophobic and confused about the HIV virus.
Throughout this moving drama however Miller fights for Beckett and comes to understand more about the illness and homophobia. Tom Hanks won the Oscar for this, but Washington is also brilliant in his role as the attorney coming to terms with the disease and his homophobia, and leading him to respect Beckett. Washington makes Miller likeable and hopefully helped many audience members rethink any prejudices they had about HIV and homosexuality in the early 90s.
9. The Hurricane (1999)
The Hurricane is based on a true story, that of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was falsely convicted of triple murder, and spent 20 years in prison. The film portrays his childhood up to his imprisonment. At the same time we are introduced to a young troubled boy who finds Rubin’s autobiography, reads it from start to finish, and becomes obsessed with meeting him and helping to free him from prison. He convinces his foster carers to fight for the Hurricane’s release from prison, and eventually the Hurricane and the family form a strong friendship.
Washington portrays the Hurricane with ease, fitting into his character as a boxer perfectly. The film is incredibly moving, not only for the injustices caused to the Hurricane over his life, but the boy who has so much good in his heart that he just wants to help him. This is one of Denzel Washington’s most powerful performances, a moving and inspirational drama.
Washington again portrays so much through his eyes and expression alone. His expressions, dialogue and characterisation portray a constant mixture of anger and sadness, mixed with his passion. It was not surprising that Washington gained his fourth Academy Award nomination for this portrayal.