8. Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man was a welcome return for Washington as it was two years since the release of The Manchurian Candidate. He plays a slick New York detective up against Clive Owen’s ruthless and clever bank robber, Dalton Russell.
Washington stars alongside Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his partner, as they try to solve a highly intricate bank robbery, through flashbacks of the bank robbery in progress, and the subsequent interviews of all the hostages that were taken in the siege. Washington plays the role of New York Detective incredibly believably, fitting into the drawl of a cop so well, and him and Ejiofor could actually be partners they bounce off each other with ease and style.
The film also focuses on wealthy Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) and Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) trying to protect the contents of Case’s safety deposit box, which is placed in the bank, mystery surrounding whatever secret he holds in that box.
Washington plays his role with charm and pizazz, going head to head with Dalton Russell, who may just outsmart him. The film has an amazing soundtrack, brilliant twists, a brilliant cast and of course a director with a brilliant eye for detail, Spike Lee. It is classic Denzel Washington, his charm and tenacity shining throughout.
7. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Denzel Washington plays “Easy” in this lustful film-noir. Living in LA after the Second World War, he loses his job during a difficult period of time for black men to find well paid jobs. He is struggling with money and struggling to keep up with mortgage payments. He is approached by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) who asks Easy to work for him.
Easy is quite desperate for money so he agrees and takes on the task of helping him find a missing woman which leads to highly mysterious events. Easy must get to grips with LA’s dark side in this film in which he gets mixed up in a murderous political scandal.
Washington fits well into this slightly different role, his eyes portraying lust and fear throughout. He brings charm to Easy, slipping easily into the film-noir genre without being a caricature.
6. Glory (1989)
Glory tells the story of a tremendous act of courage during the Civil War, an element history had ignored due to racism in the past. The heroes were black members of a section of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry led by Colonel Robert Shaw (played by a very young Matthew Broderick).
The unfair way in which the black soldiers were treated differently to the white soldiers is portrayed, the black soldiers given the menial and demeaning tasks. However, they are a strong team and stick together, none of them leaving when they are given the opportunity to do so. One of the groups unofficial leaders is Trip (Denzel Washington).
Deaths in each fight were huge but the army continued, as they believed in what they were doing. Glory celebrates the courage of the men during the Civil War, but it is an utterly moving and sorrowful film. Washington again tackles a challenging role with ease. Understandably it was his first Academy Award win as his performance is perfect, using every part of Washington’s acting expertise here. Glory won Washington the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his realistic and moving portrayal of Trip.
5. Man on Fire (2004)
In perhaps one of his most violent films, Washington’s character, John Creasy is a bodyguard struggling with a difficult past which has led to an alcohol problem and depression. With the help of his former colleague and friend Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), Creasy gets a job protecting the young daughter of a couple in Mexico City as there has been a huge increase in the amount of kidnappings in the city for ransom money.
Creasy, aloof and detached becomes increasingly fond of the girl (Dakota Fanning) he is hired to protect, and they form a tight bond. When she is kidnapped he goes on a rampage to find those responsible and bring her back to her mother.
This thriller is full of action and suspense, and whilst it may not be critically acclaimed it is certainly a thrill ride from start to finish in this tense tale of retribution. Washington portrays a lot of his grief from the past through his eyes and expressions, and he is utterly believable as a man on a mission to save the girl he is meant to be protecting, he plays the part of damaged hero to perfection.
4. American Gangster (2007)
Washington plays a man with questionable values again in this film directed by Ridley Scott. Washington plays Frank Lucas, a quiet, calm and unnoticeable man, he doesn’t stick out from the crowd. He plays a driver to one of the city’s main black crime bosses. They are close, and they respect each other. His boss dies, and Frank (quietly intelligent) begins to build his own empire from this, focusing on his idea of the American Dream. He becomes a huge gangster in the underworld, and ends up ruling the drug trade.
Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, a dishevelled Detective who notices that there has been a change in the drug trade in the city. Frank and Richie come up against each other in Richie’s attempt to bring Frank down, but they are similar in the fact that they have specific codes of ethics that they stick fiercely to.
But only one can win in this tale of crime and the life of a gangster. Washington plays the part of a gangster ruthlessly, and it fits him brilliantly. In a similar way to Michael Corleone in The Godfather we see his transformation from calm, likeable, hard-working man to ruthless gangster.
3. Flight (2012)
Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot in his captivating, thrilling and moving action drama from Robert Zemeckis, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Washington’s character is an alcoholic, but his affliction goes ignored or unnoticed by others as he is a brilliant and charming pilot. He pilots planes dosing up on cocaine beforehand to sober up, with the help of his drug dealing buddy played with a little bit of much needed comedy by John Goodman.
One fateful morning after a night of drinking and drug taking with an air steward he is having a relationship with, they awake after little sleep to make it in time for their early morning flight. In one of the most tense, thrilling and terrifying aeroplane disaster scenes in the history of film, Whitaker saves most of the passengers on board by performing an almost impossible stunt.
What follows is the story of the law case to find out what really happened on that fateful flight, and Whitaker’s journey through alcoholism and drug addiction, and living and eventually dealing with his demons. Kelly O’Reilly plays another addict in the film who strikes up a relationship with Whitaker after they meet in the hospital after the crash, and Whitaker has become a minor celebrity due to his actions throughout the flight.
It really is a fantastic story of redemption and a man’s journey. Washington makes a character most of us should not even like root worthy with his ability to bring such a character to life. I’m not sure if many other actors could have made Whitaker as likeable as he is, for all the negative aspects of his personality, but Washington makes us care for Whitaker despite all of this. The audience can see and empathise with his struggle of addiction through Washington’s characterisation of Whitaker. Flight is an excellent gripping tale of redemption, and Washington was unsurprisingly nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award.
2. Training Day (2001)
This tough police drama stars Ethan Hawke as Jake Hoyt, an LAPD rookie whose ambition is to join the narcotics team led by long time Detective Alonzo Harris, played by Washington. Jake joins Alonzo for a one day ride-along through which Jake has to prove himself to Alonzo, to be able to join his team.
Throughout the day Jake must face up to the fact that Alonzo may not quite know the difference between right and wrong, using his own code to deal with criminals on the street. Is he being set up by Alonzo, or is this part of the test? Jake must decide in this tense thriller, in which Washington plays another role superbly, leading Jake and the audience to question whether what he is doing is right or wrong, or somewhere in-between. Alonzo is probably one of the biggest ‘villains’ Washington has ever played.
This was the first film in which Washington had played a villainous character, the audience being used to him playing characters with deep moral values and well known historical figures, and it really proved that Washington’s acting skills can fit him easily into any role. Training Day proved that he was capable of playing characters with big flaws, and not just the ‘hero’ he usually epitomises.
1. Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee directs Washington again as Malcolm X, Washington’s powerful performance bringing Malcolm X to life in this biographical film about the influential Black Nationalist Leader. The film starts during his early life moving on to his career, his becoming a Muslim and a member of the Nation of Islam whilst in prison, and the events leading up to his assassination. Washington portrays Malcolm X in these three main stages of his life superfluously.
Malcolm X is an autobiographical and an educational film with a most amazing and electrifying performance by Washington. It is a brilliant tribute to the controversial black activist and a leader in the struggle for liberation. Washington gives a performance so powerful and brings Malcolm X to life. He delivers the part perfectly and is electrifying in the lead role, his likeliness to Malcolm X sublime. This is and will always be one of Washington’s best ever performances.
Author Bio: Tessa has been a film fanatic and list writer since she learned to walk. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Television Studies, and a Masters Degree in Scriptwriting from Aberystwyth University. She has a particular interest in horror films, and is currently attempting to write her debut horror script whilst living the dream in Bristol. Follow her on Twitter @Tessicat.