Denzel Washington is Hollywood royalty. The versatility of his performances have propelled him to the status as one of the most respected and talented actors of our generation. At 63 years young, he’s showing no signs of stopping, securing another Oscar nomination for his role in the upcoming film Roman J. Israel, Esq.
It is easy to see why. When Denzel is on-screen, he owns every frame possible. He invites the audience into his world and some of the most iconic performances are the ones that emotionally still resonate today.
Arguably one of his best is Alonzo, the rogue and corrupt police officer in Training Day. In the space of twenty-four hours, he hosts an audition to a rookie (played by Ethan Hawke) on the underpinnings of street justice and the underground narcotics world. Training Day takes advantage of what we usually expect from Denzel Washington. In the past he’s always assured, measured and a positive sign of trust and confidence. Here he plays the villain. It is deliberately off-kilter, manipulative and eccentric, one that deservedly earned him an Academy Award.
But Denzel is much more than just gangsters (American Gangster), an assassin/hitman (Man on Fire) or anything stereotypical. He can play deeply flawed characters such as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic airline pilot who manages to pull off a miracle in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight. But the majority of his best roles are the ones that explore a social or a political injustice or prejudice. These roles include Glory, Fences, The Hurricane and even John Q. But his most phenomenal and best performance goes to Malcolm X. As one of Spike Lee’s best films, the biographical re-telling of Malcolm’s life captures all manners of his transformation from a small time gangster to the influential and inspirational Black Nationalist leader. As difficult this role was, Denzel flawlessly rose to the challenge and his collaboration with Spike Lee didn’t stop there.
As Detective Keith Frazier, Inside Man represented Denzel at his calculating and investigative best as he tries to uncover the mystery behind an elaborate bank robbery. But one of Denzel’s most underrated performances belongs to Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. Set during the apartheid era in 70s South Africa, as the black activist Steven Biko, Denzel was heartfelt and inspirational, calling out the double standards of bureaucracy and the justice system and the treatment of South African men and women.
Tom Hanks may have scooped the Oscar for his performance as Andrew Beckett but it is very hard to overlook Denzel’s outstanding performance in Philadelphia. In Jonathan Demme’s classic which explores AIDS, homosexuality and its societal stigma and discrimination, Denzel as Joe Miller goes on a transformative journey. It was the battle with his own homophobic fears to courageously becoming Andrew’s legal representative. Their friendship crossed the divide and formed the legal challenge against Andrew’s wrongful dismissal against a corporate law firm.
But Denzel is also renowned for his motivational speeches and Remember the Titans is another case of his excellence. As Coach Herman Boone, he inspired unity and progression to become the best, a trick he repeated in The Great Debaters.
Some can argue that Denzel’s work and performance can be repetitive but every now again, he manages to surprise you. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has descended into a desolate chaos, The Book of Eli is one of those performances – one of a kind actually. As Eli, it is reserved, quiet, determined and completely focussed on his mission. When he violently responds to a threat, it’s done out of survival and his driving necessity to reach his goal. The Book of Eli says a lot about the mindset of the human spirit and the faith to keep to keep moving despite the obstacles involved.
No matter what Denzel does, he is an actor always worth seeing.