Washington had already played divisive leader Malcolm X once, on stage in 1981 in the play "When The Chickens Come Home To Roost," but despite that, and him being the first choice of Norman Jewison, who was originally set to direct the project before Spike Lee came on board, it proved to be a controversial piece of casting, with some members of the black community angry that Washington was too light-skinned, had the wrong hair color, was too much of a sex symbol, to play Malcolm X. They needn't have worried: Washington gives a performance so towering, so titanic, that it could have filled all five slots on this list. To be accurate, it's closer to three performances -- the zoot-suited hustler of the opening act, the firecracker orator rising through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, and the more serene man that returns from Mecca -- but Washington lends something that makes the three cohere. Lee's film has its problems, but its star delivers a perfect turn, letting us see every facet of the man and the icon, and you suspect it'll never be equalled in his career. The idea that he lost the Oscar to Al Pacino in "Scent Of A Woman" makes us feel a little bit ill.
You could argue that "Crimson Tide" was a great watershed in Denzel Washington's career, the moment at which, with the momentum from "Philadelphia" and "The Pelican Brief," he stopped being "a black actor" and simply became one of the biggest stars in the world, one of the few black leads studios were willing to topline a movie with. You could also argue that it marked the moment at which Washington stopped taking interesting roles, and started playing movie star parts in middlebrow thrillers, especially since it marks his first work with his most frequent collaborator, Tony Scott. Both theses are probably correct. But that doesn't take away from how terrific a thriller "Crimson Tide" is, and how good Washington is in the film. As the whip-smart, but combat-experience-free Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, he's entirely convincing both as a lifelong naval man and as someone who can debate the finer points of the Silver Surfer with his subordinates (thanks there to a dialog polish by Quentin Tarantino). And when he goes toe-to-toe with Gene Hackman, Scott is smart enough to know that for all the nuclear weaponry on board, the real pyrotechnics comes from letting two great stars have at it; two different approaches, to life and to command. Your sympathies are with Washington, but he's generous enough to let you see the flaws he carries within.
"Devil In A Blue Dress" (1995)
For an A-lister, Denzel has a rare aversion to franchises: for whatever reason, we've been deprived of "Virtuosity 2: Beyond Cyberspace," "The Bone Collector Rises," "John R" or "Unstoppabler." He's never made a sequel, but boy, we wish we'd gotten one to "Devil In A Blue Dress." The film comes from terminally underrated helmer Carl Franklin, and is based on Walter Mosley's novel, one of a series to feature Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a WWII vet who becomes an L.A. private eye. And while Don Cheadle dominates every scene he's in as Rawlins' psychotic pal Mouse (another mark of Washington's generosity as a performer, something less evident in recent years), the star is the film's heart and soul, deploying an easy Texas charm that lets him pay homage to some of the noir greats without slavishly imitating them; Easy is a living, breathing character, not some genre trope. And it helps that the film around him is one of the best he ever starred in: a firmly undervalued noir that tells a twisting mystery story while delving into the racial politics of post-war L.A. In another, better world, Washington got to do four or five of these, but sadly, the film's underwhelming box office performance put an end to any more Mosley adaptations for the time being.
Honorable Mentions: No mention of his Oscar-winning turn in "Training Day"? Yeah. There's no denying that Washington's fun as corrupt cop Alonzo Harris, but it's pretty hammy, scenery-chewing stuff, and his statuette was definitely one of those cases of an actor being awarded for his career, rather than for the performance itself. His other most recent nomination for "The Hurricane" is another strong turn, but one with less moral ambivalence than a director more in his prime than Norman Jewison might have delivered.
Otherwise, he's excellent in "Mo' Better Blues," his first collaboration with Spike Lee, showing a lightness of touch he didn't always get to display (the same goes for "Inside Man," although it's a much slighter turn), and that's the performance that came closest to making this list, although another collaboration with Lee, "He's Got Game," which marked his shift into more middle-aged roles, was also a strong contender. He got to display his stage chops in "Much Ado About Nothing" -- not a great movie, but a good showcase for Washington's capacity for verse: he's easily the best thing in it. And finally, he's strong in "Philadelphia," as the homophobic lawyer shown the error of his ways by Tom Hanks' AIDS victim.