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The Essentials: The 5 Best Denzel Washington Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 10, 2012 12:58 PM
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Denzel Washington The Essentials

Sometimes, winning an Oscar seems to change things for an actor. Look at Al Pacino, who's barely taken anything worth his time since he won for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992, or Kevin Spacey, who starred in a string of dull would-be-heartwarmers after picking up his gold for "American Beauty." And you could argue the same for Denzel Washington. He's irrefutably one of the most charismatic screen presences around, with even more gravitas than ever before as he closes on his 60s. But since he won Best Actor from the Academy for "Training Day," his film roles seem to have been a variation on a theme; thrillers that sometimes work, sometimes don't, but rarely leave you reeling the way his best work does, with his real energy seemingly reserved for directing work or stage performances like "Julius Caesar" and "Fences" (the latter of which won him a Tony).

"Safe House," which opens today, is another one of those. He's entertaining to watch, to be sure, but it's a meld of most of what he's done in the last decade. Nevertheless, he's still the best thing in it, and if nothing else, it served as a reminder of the truly electric turns he's given over the years. Below, we've picked out five of our favorite Denzel performances from across his 25-year big-screen career. Let us know your favorites in the comments section. And hopefully, we'll see something a little out of the ordinary later in the year when Washington stars as a substance-abusing airline pilot in Robert Zemeckis'  drama "Flight."

Cry Freedom
"Cry Freedom" (1987)
Let's be honest, "Cry Freedom" is no great shakes. It's well-meaning enough that it's hard to dislike, but it's the model of the black-person's-struggle-told-through-white-eyes sub-genre, the birth of everything Ed Zwick's ever made, and the film suffers for placing so much emphasis on Kevin Kline's journalist (although Kline is strong), and the second half suffers for the absence of Steve Biko. But that's a testament to the fire of Denzel Washington's performance in the film. Plucked from hospital drama "St. Elsewhere," on which he'd been a regular for nearly five years, to play the youthful South African civil rights activist, Washington won his first Best Supporting Actor nomination. There's a quiet, calm control to him, a passionate decency, and Washington somehow infuses a sense of internal life, even if director Richard Attenborough never lets us see Biko except through the eyes of Donald Woods (Kline). It was the first real demonstration of his pure, natural charisma, the kind that could make a man like Biko a leader, and a man like Washington a star, and that the second half of the film feels so flat is down to his absence (so much so that Attenborough cuts in flashbacks of Biko throughout).

"Glory" (1989)
Washington lost his "Cry Freedom" Oscar to Sean Connery in "The Untouchables," but he didn't have to wait long to pick one up -- two years later, he beat out Marlon Brando, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello and Dan Aykroyd for his performance in Ed Zwick's "Glory." Like "Cry Freedom," it's a white man's black history movie, with a miscast liberal hero (Matthew Broderick), and black characters that aren't much more than archetypes. But there's no denying that Zwick makes his tale of the 54th Massachussets regiment, one of the first all-black units in the Union army in the Civil War, work like gangbusters, and Washington, whose big-screen career was still on the rise, was the stand-out in a strong cast. As freed slave Trip, he's as prickly and vengeful as Biko was calm and saintly, and is a much needed stand-in for the contemporary black voice in the film. But when the time comes, he's just as heroic as any of his comrades. Were there better performances in his career, more deserving of an Oscar? Sure (see the next entry). But this was the part that put him on the path from ridiculously handsome character actor to bona-fide A-lister, so we don't begrudge him that win, especially as he is so strong in the film.

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  • zsivaz | March 4, 2014 2:25 PMReply

    1. Malcolm X
    2. The Hurricane
    3. He Got Game
    4. Training Day
    5. Philadelphia

  • Michael | October 22, 2013 6:04 PMReply

    1. The Hurricane
    2. Malcolm X
    3. Flight
    4. Remember The Titans
    5. Training Day

  • anon | March 2, 2012 1:39 PMReply

    my faves are mo' better blues and glory.

  • jb | February 14, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    i think you mean people thought that Washington was too dark-skinned

  • Robbin | February 14, 2012 2:50 PMReply

    My top Denzel Washington movies are Malcolm X, The Preacher Wife, The Hurricane, Devil In A Blue Dress & Training Day.

  • DAX | February 14, 2012 6:02 AMReply

    I can not believe you guys also chose Devil in a Blue Dress! the only time I begged for a sequel or just another film depicting the character. My top 5
    1.Malcolm X
    3.Training Day
    4. Devil in a Blue Dress
    5. Mo' Better Blues
    Honorable mention to Hurricane and Soldier's Story!

  • James | February 14, 2012 2:39 AMReply

    Great list, but I have to take exception with your comments about "Much Ado" on two points. First, it IS a great movie. It single-handedly revived Shakespeare on film for nearly a decade. Second, Washington is charming and great in his role, but the real revelation in "Much Ado" was Emma Thompson. People forget she was a minor British comedienne/sitcom actress with no "proper" dramatic training who was mostly known for being cast by her then-husband Kenneth Branagh in all his films. The moment she started speaking the opening verses of "Much Ado", she owned the iambic pentameter as if she had written it. This role, combined with the Oscar she won for "Howards End" only weeks before "Much Ado"'s release, signaled the birth of her stardom.

  • Quietson | February 13, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    Malcolm X, Devil in a Blue Dress, Man on Fire, Crimson Tide, He Got Game...oh and The Mighty Quinn. Just kidding about Quinn.

  • BONZOB | February 11, 2012 8:35 PMReply

    I will third the love for He Got Game. Lee's most underrated film and Washington's most underrated performance.

  • J.J. | February 10, 2012 9:24 PMReply

    Thank you soooo much for showing some love to "Devil In A Blue Dress." Really underrated gem in the film noir genre.

  • jimmiescoffee | February 10, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    'he got game' all day. his best work. chokes me up every time. he's also good in the slightly underrated 'manchurian candidate' and guilty pleasure 'virtuosity.'

  • GrooveAr | February 10, 2012 4:40 PMReply

    Even better in Man On Fire, Washington himself thinks so. There is just too many roles.

  • nechoplex | February 10, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    What about in American Gangster? I thought he was really great in there. Probably the best part of that film in my opinion.

  • caro | February 10, 2012 2:08 PMReply

    he's my fav in all Spike Lee's movies,Philadelphia and Glory

  • Cp | February 10, 2012 1:44 PMReply

    Remember the freakin' Titans!!! Yes, I said it.

  • Sason | February 10, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    The Hurricane is not a strong turn, it's phenomenal.

  • rotch | February 10, 2012 1:10 PMReply

    I truly think that He Got Game is the most underrated film in Lee's filmography and hands down one of the best Washington's performances.

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