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Why Denzel's Already Won (And He Doesn't Need An Oscar To Prove It)

Features
by Abdul Ali
February 14, 2013 2:38 PM
21 Comments
  • |
Denzel Washington

If Denzel Washington wins the best actor Oscar this month, it won't break any obvious records; the actor won his first Academy Award in 1990. However, his role as Whip Whitaker in "Flight" (now available on XFINITY On Demand™) stands out for a reason made plain by the film's review in the New York Times: "Flight Stars Denzel Washington as an Alcoholic Pilot.

Newspaper headlines have to say a lot with little, but these eight words demonstrate how much ground Black men have covered in Hollywood since Denzel Washington accepted his first Oscar from Geena Davis 23 years ago. He gripped the statue and gave it a long look as the camera panned to a beaming Morgan Freeman. Denzel soaked up the applause and adjusted his tux before he made his acceptance speech that concluded with an homage to the “Black soldiers who helped to make this country free.”

The moment was a watershed in American culture. Not only did we get to witness the rise of a modern-day Sidney Poitier who moved with a showman's swagger, but we also saw the birth of a nuanced presence for Black men in Hollywood. In the 23 years since Denzel Washington won, we've moved from a Black man portraying a slave who becomes a heroic soldier to portraying a drug- and alcohol-addicted airline pilot whose heroism can't outweigh his own flaws. We are in a time where storytelling about black lives lean toward the individual rather than the collective “We” that long typified movies made about Black Americans.

In her essay collection "The Black Interior," cultural critic Elizabeth Alexander characterizes the period in which Washington came-of-age as revolutionary. “Washington has made very precise career choices, and there are no careless moves in his filmography,” she writes. “To portray Black historical characters was the necessary work of the 1980s and 1990s as opportunities for Black actors and directors expanded and Black people took more control of the image-making onscreen.”

The care with which Denzel Washington and his advisors crafted his career is nothing short of remarkable. For most Black actors, their glory is summed up in one or two memorable roles. Haven’t we all heard the argument that there aren’t enough good scripts written for Black talent? However, Washington's half-dozen Oscar nominations track the evolution in his filmography from historical heroic figures to more deeply flawed creations in which the character's race may be the least interesting element.

His first nomination came in 1987 as a supporting actor for his portrayal of martyred anti-apartheid activist and journalist Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom." That was followed by his Oscar-winning turn as slave-turned-soldier Private Trip in "Glory" (1989), then as the titular "Malcolm X" in 1993 (his first Best Actor nomination). In 1999, he was Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the legendary middleweight boxer who was falsely accused of murder, in "Hurricane."

And then with "Training Day" (2001), as corrupt Los Angeles police detective Alonzo Harris, he crossed the rubicon: He won the Oscar with a character who was complex, unredeemed and entirely fictional. "Flight" arguably raises the stakes even higher: While Det. Harris was a very smart twist on the gangsta characterizations of so many films, the story of pilot Whitaker wasn't attached to any race; as many films have already proven, addiction struggles can belong to anyone.

Washington has been liberated to do what Poitier was never allowed to be on screen: fully human. Poitier acknowledged as much in an interview with the Academy shortly after Washington won for "Training Day," on the same night that Poitier received an honorary award representing his body of work. http://www.oscars.org/video/watch/mi_spoitier_denzel.html

Noted Poitier, "It represented progress. It represented… a kind of democracy that had been very long in maturing. His following me as he did, he had taken the concept of African-Americans in films to a place where I couldn't, I didn't. I thank him for that. He helped me that evening to a closing of my artistic life."

Abdul Ali is a culture writer who lives in the nation’s capital. You can follow him on Twitter.

What are your favorite characters played by Denzel Washington? Do you see his repertoire as diverse or does Washington play revisions of the same rebellious character?

For more Denzel, XFINITY On Demand™ features “Flight” and a great Denzel Washington Collection. Learn more, and join the celebration of Black entertainment at xfinity.com/celebrateblacktv.

Editor’s Note: Throughout Black History Month and beyond, Shadow and Act will partner with XFINITY to celebrate Black entertainment. XFINITY is creating a unique digital community built around the love of Black entertainment at xfinity.com/celebrateblacktv. Shadow and Act hopes to enrich this community and provide a launching pad for insightful discussion. Look to Shadow and Act for features and content examining and exploring key themes and topics that run throughout the history of Black entertainment.

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21 Comments

  • Surprise123 | February 25, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    My favorite screen moment of Denzel Washington was his portrayal of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in Kenneth Branaugh's production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." There's a scene in which all of the men from the community return from war on horseback, and Denzel, as the prince, leads the way. Holy smoke....great looking men, huge war horses, pounding hoofs.

    Denzel Washington, not to mention the other men in the film, have never looked better.

  • Cindy | February 22, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    It is great that Denzel has had a wonderful career but I also think Hollywood is not that progressive. Denzel is almost sixty years old, no offense but where are the good roles for the young black actors? Where is the good work for young black talent? Where are the quality roles for black women? Great Denzel's had an amazing career big deal he's only one person. Will Smith is the other black guy in Hollywood due to his tremendous success can do whatever he wants. But for the rest of black Hollywood they are really scraping at the bottom of the barrel for good work.

  • ALEX | February 21, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    ABDUL ALI WRITE ON HERE MORE!

  • dancelover51 | February 20, 2013 4:44 PMReply

    Thank you for this article. It is something that I have noticed over the last 15 years regarding roles in which Black male characters have depth and complexity. I just hope one day this will translate into Black actresses have the same such opportunities.

  • dancelover51 | February 20, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    Thank you for this article. It is something that I have noticed over the last 15 years regarding roles in which Black male characters have depth and complexity. I just hope one day this will translate into Black actresses have the same such opportunities.

  • ALM | February 16, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    So many great roles.....Since "The Preacher's Wife" had a spiritual underpinning, he couldn't completely let loose. I would love to see a romantic comedy feature film with him and Viola Davis with love scenes included. I love watching Denzel work.

  • ALM | February 19, 2013 10:57 PM

    @ Lia: Let's get an IndieGoGo campaign going, and maybe we can raise the funds for the movie. I wish....LOL :)

  • Lia | February 19, 2013 12:25 PM

    That would me amazing! two superbs actors in that kind of feature... i loved them in Fences!

  • Fuoriclasse | February 15, 2013 5:06 AMReply

    First of all, great article. I loved reading it, and agree 100% with what was said. Denzel is a legend, one of the best actors of all time, and he frankly doesn't need another oscar to prove it (although I'd love for him to get more). My favorite movie with him? Crimson Tide, Cry Freedom, John Q, Philadelphia, The Hurricane, Man on Fire, Training Day, Out of Time, Inside Man, Remember the Titans... there are so many. Then there's He Got Game, The Manchurian Candidate, Deja Vu, Malcolm X, Antwone Fisher, Courage Under Fire, Mo' Better Blues, Glory, Flight, The Pelican Brief, Devil in a Blue Dress... I've seen all of his movies, and maybe with the exception of a couple, all of them are great, and in every one Denzel nails it like only he can. And his versitility is just incredible. Plus he's a truly great man and a role model. He's my hero.

  • Geneva Girl | February 15, 2013 3:13 AMReply

    I'm going to go way back and list Much Ado About Nothing among my favorites. I liked that he wasn't playing a typical Denzel role, although I like those too. He's done so little comedy, Carbon Copy and the Preacher's Wife. I'd love to see him do more. I love his smile and would like to see a more light-hearted Denzel.

  • LeonRaymond | February 15, 2013 12:40 AMReply

    He has had many but still in my mind Hurricane keeps coming back as I feel that was the greatest performance of all time by any one male or female. They speak about Charlize in MONSTER, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of The Lambs, Kevin Spacey, in Seven,Morgan Freeman in Shawshank, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but Denzel's Hurricane is on board and equal to and maybe a slight notch above!

  • Colombe | February 21, 2013 10:39 PM

    I ABSOLUTELY share ur point. Ialmost cried my heart out while watchin the Hurricane. What a performance!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | February 15, 2013 12:03 AMReply

    My favorite Denzel Washington role will ALWAYS be "Malcolm X." I was only nine years old, but I left that movie understanding that what I had just witnessed was something very rare.

  • Onyx | February 15, 2013 12:01 AMReply

    I can only speak for my earlier post. I enjoy both Sydney and Denzel. But showing love to Denzel doesn't tread on what Sydney has done. If anything it makes one admire Sydney even more because he was able to be successful in spite of the restrictive time period he made movies. I remember there were even grumblings about Sydney playing the same character (good, non sexual, non-threatening) even though the man was sexy as hell. His walk was sensually classic, just like Yul Brynner's.

    But before Sydney and Denzel, there was James Edwards. He starred in Home of the Brave, Bright Victory, The Manchurian Candidate and his last film, Patton. James was a trailblazer though many may not know of his work. I'm told Will Smith's character in the first Men in Black was named after James Edwards, but I don't have any article to cite that. Still, it would be cool if one day James Edwards got the recognition he also deserves.

  • Said in Los Angeles | February 14, 2013 10:56 PMReply

    I hope that people aren't saying that Denzel has surpassed Sidney in any regard. Denzel got opportunities that weren't available to Sidney at the time, that’s what Sidney Poitier meant, Denzel is a great actor as is Sidney Poitier, yet they are both in a league of their own...the coolest thing would have been to see Sidney and Denzel on screen together, like Pacino and DeNiro in Michael Mann’s Heat'

  • Edwina | February 14, 2013 10:39 PMReply

    You can count on Denzel. Any movie, any role, he's going to give you an a-one, first class performance and you can take that to the bank. There's no picking one performance, one character. He nails absolutely everything he does.

  • imissmymom | February 14, 2013 6:42 PMReply

    I CANNOT BELIEVE I LEFT THE "H" OUT OF "WASHINGTON" -- TWICE!! Apologies.

  • imissmymom | February 14, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    ...I LOVE Daniel Day-Lewis but I saw "FLIGHT" last week and was blown away by Mr. Wasington's performance. Hope springs eternal but I wish there were a Best Actor odds upset and Denzel walks away with his third Oscar. Years ago as an ardent fan, I KNEW his range surpassed the material he was doing and once irritably told a friend, "Denzel has Sidney Poitier Syndrome; he needs to play a bad guy." My point was not to impugn Mr. Poitier's career or the clear significance of it, but to express my frustration that Black actors seemed always to be relegated to "safe" roles -- basically non-threatening, morally unflawed characters -- in order to be anointed by the still shockingly monochromatic machine that runs Hollywood to rise to the heights of true stardom. Ironically, shortly after my lamentation"TRAINING DAY" was released and MY day was made!

    I am thrilled Denzel Wasington is considered a solid actor and not simply defined -- and, by studio standards and practices, then automatically CONFINED -- as a "Black" actor. The sad thing is in this day and age that his career remains an anomaly, an aberration of sorts. One may argue that there are others in the D.W. category -- Jamie Foxx (squandered his Oscar win; talented but IMHO lacks the keen screen presence of D.W.), Morgan Freeman, Will Smith. Whatever the count, it is not nearly enough. Idris Elba, please come aboard...and bring some other shipmates with you!

  • Onyx | February 14, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    Oh wow, that's a tough question. A Soldier's Story is where he showed brilliance, even among actors like Adolf Ceasar and Howard Rollins. I recall seeing him in the made for TV movie "Wilma" in 1977, where he had a supporting role. Wilma was a bio-pic on Wilma Rudolph, who won three Olympic medals. What now makes that film memorable for me, is Denzel had a gap in his two front teeth, like the rest of us mere mortals. But since then his body of work is incredible, it's hard to pin down my favorites. Should I choose his turn as a phobic lawyer in Philadelphia? Or Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress? Malcolm X is most certainly a tour de force. I'm torn and I'm biased. I basically like everything Denzel's been in, because the man can ACT. And he's smart about the roles he's agreed to. I hated to see him die in Safe House, but again, his acting was superb. And there are little Denzelism's that he does with his voice that I catch in some of his films that simply add to his iconic stature. It's good to share a birthdate with this guy.

  • Sweeta | February 14, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    My favorite role of his is Malcolm X, hands down (the shit is undeniable), though he slayed Training Day and I thought he was so charming and it was great to see him do something different in The Preacher's Wife.

  • starry118 | February 14, 2013 7:21 PM

    Malcolm X and Hurricane are my favorite Denzel movies ... love The Preacher's Wife as well.

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