Not only is Denzel Washington one of the greatest African-American actors of all-time, he is also one of the greatest individual actors in Hollywood’s illustrious history, period. Audiences world-wide have been the beneficiary of Washington’s intelligent, transcendent acting talent for the better part of four decades. The Mount Vernon, New York native’s career has been critically acclaimed as witnessed by his 3 Golden Globe Awards, 2 Academy Awards, and a Tony Award. Denzel brings a realism to his characters through a seemingly innate ability to emote emotional vulnerability, especially from characters that have an otherwise tough exterior. He’s often been at his best in his bio-pic film portrayals, such as ‘Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’ and the legendary ‘Malcolm X’ – a performance that we feel was deserved of an Oscar for best actor. With all due respect to the great Al Pacino playing Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in ‘Scent of a Woman’, Denzel’s ‘Malcolm X’ performance was simply the best of 1992. Then again, he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last great actor to be snubbed by the academy in a particular year. Nevertheless, Idiot’s Guide presents a thoughtful list of the 12 best Denzel Washington film characters in his amazing career.
Denzel Washington (circa 2009)
The ‘Classic 12’…
#12. ‘Eli’ / The Book of Eli / (2010)
In the the Hughes brother’s post-apocalyptic action film ‘The Book of Eli’ Denzel Washington plays a nomadic traveller who is carrying a very important, perhaps the most important book in the history of the world, in his backpack. His burden, his responsibility. The film itself garnered mixed reviews, however Denzel’s performance was amazing…
#11. ‘Detective John Hobbes’ / Fallen / (1998)
Although the supernatural thriller ‘Fallen’ was considered a critical ‘meh’, and a commercial failure ($25 million), Denzel Washington’s performance was outstanding. His transformation from a jaded, skeptic detective to a true believer of the supernatural occult was noteworthy. Once again, Washington artfully took us on an emotional ride as his character dealt with a demon who possesses transmigration abilities. This film had an uneasy, definitely creepy quality to say the least. Washington being a great steward.
#10. ‘Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’ / The Hurricane / (1999)
This film was based on the true story of the former number one middleweight boxing contender Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter and his ordeal in dealing with a wrongful conviction for a triple murder. It was as compelling as it was heartbreaking, as it was inspirational. Denzel Washington captured it all and conveyed it to audiences in wondrous ways. Once again, Denzel working with the direction of Norman Jewison, worked his thespian magic with themes of love, compassion, and perseverance in this 1999 release.
#9. ‘Detective Keith Frazier’ / Inside Man / (2006)
Director Spike Lee’s ‘Inside Man’ (2006) was one of the better crime thrillers of the era. The smart script about a 24 hour bank heist that isn’t, but really is, was compelling from beginning to the end. The ‘Detective Keith Fraser’ character was classic Denzel, as he played it flawlessly and with the intelligence that we have all come to expect.
#8. ‘Jake Shuttlesworth’ / He Got Game / (1998)
Ahhh…Jake Shuttlesworth, a character that has become somewhat of a cult figure in hip-hop culture. Played with the kind of complexity, and vulnerability that Denzel Washington is famous for. Colorful film Director Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’ (1998) had a compelling plot-line filled with a stoic realism that many people in the African-American community in particular are quite familiar with. Denzel plays an incarcerated father with an estranged, and resentful son who also happens to be a top ranked NBA prospect, one Jesus Shuttlesworth. Jesus’s (Ray Allen) palpable resentment is due to the fact that his mother has died (albeit accidentally) at the hands of his inmate father. A complex character that Denzel Washington played with virtuoso aptitude.
#7. ‘John Creasy’ / Man on Fire / (2004)
Who better to play a vengefully despondent former CIA operative turned bodyguard, who goes on a revenge filled rampage through Mexico City, than Denzel Washington? Nobody that’s who. As Washington’s career has matured he seems to have taken more tough guy roles, and we absolutely love it! His ‘John Creasy’ character is this film has a smug ruthlessness that puts the fear of god in his adversaries, and makes for a classic revenge flick with a loving relationship between cute little girl and her protector at it’s core.
#6. ‘Coach Herman Boone’ / Remember the Titans / (2000)
‘Remember the Titans’ (2000) is the kind of dramatic sports bio-pic that inspires audiences young and old. Working with esteemed Director Boaz Yakin, Denzel Washington portrays legendary T. C. Williams High School football coach Herman Boone, in racially charged Alexandria, Virginia circa 1971. Denzel’s performance was sublime in dealing with the lighting rod social issue of race, doing so with remarkable dignity in the midst of community turbulence, and football team dynamics. A wonderful performance.
#5. ‘Robert McCall’ / The Equalizer / (2014)
Something special happens when Denzel Washington and Director Antoine Fuqua get together to make a crime film. This action film-noir vigilante picture has an addictive quality for those of us who admire revenge on the silver screen. ‘Robert McCall’ is the kind of character that highlights Denzel’s quiet intensity and clandestine intelligence. The plot lines for vigilante films are typically straight to the point, this film is no different. What makes it special is Denzel’s performance as the quiet guardian angel assassin in the midst.
#4. ‘Easy Rawlins’ / Devil in a Blue Dress / (1995)
Novelist Walter Mosley’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ is one in a series of books starring private detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. This novel directed for the screen by Carl Franklin takes audiences into life in 1940’s Los Angeles, a place both very different, and much the same as today. The Rawlins character seems so tailor-made for Washington that it makes you wonder if Mosley wrote his 1990 mystery with Denzel on his mind. Washington plays ‘Easy Rawlins’ with an ease and familiarity that is remarkable.
#3. ‘Lt. Commander Ron Hunter’ / Crimson Tide / (1995)
1995 was a great year for Denzel Washington films. The aforementioned ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’, and Director Tony Scott’s ‘Crimson Tide’. Denzel was quite simply masterful as ‘Lt. Commander Ron Hunter’ the unwitting nemesis of Gene Hackman’s ‘ Captain Frank Ramsey’ aboard a United States Navy nuclear submarine. Newsflash, there’s a mutiny with the battle lines being drawn between the two alpha males officers. There is a critical scene (shown below) that encapsulates the tension and rivalry that makes this film so very compelling, and so very great…
#2. ‘Detective Alonzo Harris’ / Training Day / (2001)
Yes, Denzel Washington won the Oscar for Best Actor for this role as sinister ‘Detective Alonzo Harris’ in Director Antoine Fuqua’s wildly successful crime drama ‘Training Day’ (2001). Yes, he absolutely deserved it. No, this wasn’t the only time his film performance’s he was qualified to win an Oscar. Nevertheless, Denzel played this character with phenomenal depth and a kind of controlled intensity that audiences witness as it slowly begins to unravel. It’s a marvel to watch, and a major reason that this film has become an instant classic…
#1. ‘Malcolm X’ / Malcom X / (1992)
Kudos for Director Spike Lee’s brave filmmaking endeavor in the making of ‘Malcolm X’ (1992). All of the respect in the world for doing it so very well. However, let’s be clear about something, it was Denzel Washington’s Oscar worthy performance that carried this film/story from it’s beginning to it’s historically tragic end. Denzel was so good that I wondered on more than one occasion if it were possible that he had been reincarnated from the legendary Malcolm X himself. He was that great. In many ways Denzel used every ounce of his acting ability and emotional flexibility to successfully accomplish this performance. It was truly one for the ages, and a textbook example of bio-pic acting.