… and Why the 90’s was His Best Decade
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by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Denzel Washington has proven to be a living legend. A giant among Hollywood, one of the greatest actors of his era and without a doubt the best African-American actor of his generation following in the footsteps of the great Sidney Poitier. When he won his Best Actor trophy for Training Day (2001) he became only the second African-American to win that award following Poitier who won the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award that same night. Washington has established himself through his intensity and versitlity and his career has spoken volumes. You can argue that it was easier for him since Sidney Poitier paved the way for black actors to have leading roles in major motion pictures that were not degrading to African-Americans. Denzel is one of the many recipients to benefit from the trail Poitier blazed for actors of color but it is important to remember that Mr. Washington created his legacy when he faced a lot of tough competition from other African-American actors. When Sidney did it he was the only one “allowed” to receive certain roles. Over time Denzel has created his legacy proving himself to be the best of his generation over talented actors such as Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles S. Dutton, Don Cheadle, the list could go on and on. Denzel has had a fruitful career and it falls into three distinct phases. He is at a point where he can choose whatever kind of role he wants to play and has made it clear that he likes winning or at least earning Oscar nominations, and he also likes playing action hero. With the release of the trailer for The Equalizer 2 and his previous role earning his eighth Academy Award nomination (likely at the expense of James Franco) for Roman J. Israel Esquire (2017) this track record has become predictable. For most of the 21st century that is all we have seen him do, one role for Denzel to have fun shooting a lot of guns, and one dramatic role saying “hey, come on, give me an Oscar”. But prior to that ,Denzel Washington created his body of work by choosing roles that were challenging and he elevated movies with his mere presence. There are three distinct phases of Denzel’s career and we are going to look back at each one and see how he got to this point of his career.
Phase 1: Up and Coming Star
All actors have to start somewhere and Denzel Washington started from some very humble roots. Born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York to a middle class family, he did not get the acting bug until college at Fordham University. He acted in some plays and soon began to pursue roles on the big and small screen. His motion picture debut came in Carbon Copy (1981) a comedy where Washington played the illegitimate son of George Segal. This would lead Denzel to a successful television run from 1982-1988 on the hit series St. Elsewhere. In between seasons of St. Elsewhere he acted in some very high profile movies such as Norman Jewison’s Best Picture nominee the military drama/mystery A Soldier’s Story (1984) and Denzel earned his first of what would be many Academy Award nominations in Richard Attenborough’s anti-Apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987) where Washington played real life activist Steve Biko. Biko died in real life and he died about half way through the movie which focused on Kevin Kline and his family trying to investigate the murder. Both of these roles Denzel solidified that he had a powerful onscreen presence and that he was a budding movie star. Once St. Elsewhere ended, Washington took Hollywood by storm and announced that he was the real deal with his Academy Award winning turn in Edward Zwick’s Civil War picture Glory (1989). Denzel took home a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Washington may have struggled early on as most actors do, but his struggles did not seem to last very long because from this point on he was a household name and started to set himself apart from other actors.
Phase 2: Acting for the Sake of Acting
Now the 1990’s were upon us and Denzel Washington had something most of his peers did not, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on his shelf. Regardless of race, he had made it to the top but still wanted to challenge himself and by the end of the decade he would set himself apart from many other actors of his generation. Ed Zwick who directed him in Glory would work with Denzel Washington twice more on two of his best movies of the 90’s. The first was Courage Under Fire (1996). A military thriller about the Gulf War where he plays a soldier investigating if a deceased female commander (Meg Ryan) is worthy of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The movie was a medium sized hit during the summer blockbuster season and garnered tremendous critical praise. It should have earned Denzel an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and Meg Ryan, playing tough and against type should have earned a nomination as well. The third time Denzel starred in a movie directed by Ed Zwick was 1998’s The Siege. An eerily prophetic movie about New York City held hostage by Muslim terrorists that debuted three years before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It was a haunting and gutsy film that questioned how far is too far and is sadly more relevant in some ways today and less relevant in others since we are living in a world gripped by the fear of fundamentalist terrorism.
The 1990’s was also the decade where Spike Lee and Denzel Washington discovered each other. Working for the first time together on Mo Better Blues (1990) they would go on to work together four times on Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), and Inside Man (2006). Denzel would earn his third Academy Award nomination for portraying the late Civil Rights activist in Malcolm X and his first nomination as an actor in a leading role. To date that is still Denzels finest performance and he should have taken home the trophy for Malcolm X but the Academy chose to honor Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, when they should have honored Pacino two decades prior for his work in Serpico (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974) or Dog Day Afternoon (1975). It is impossible to imagine any other actor playing Malcolm X other than Denzel in this outstanding biopic which remains one of the best films of Spike Lee’s career as well. Plus his work as a father released from jail to convince his son to go to a certain college in order to get a reduced sentence in He Got Game is also one of Denzel’s greatest performances and deserved award recognition as well. That movie had no business being as good as it turned out to be with NBA player Ray Allen as his son and the second credited actor. It is a great father and son story.
This was also the decade where Denzel discovered that he could be an action star and that he really liked being an action star. His first lead role in an action vehicle was Ricochet (1991). Directed by Russell Mulcahy, famous for his music videos and the action-fantasy film Highlander (1986), Denzel plays a district attorney terrorized by a criminal that he put behind bars years ago when he was a cop played perfectly by John Lithgow at his most vile. It was a very good action picture for its time and Denzel proved that he could be an action star even though he did not look like the traditional ones at the time such as Schwarzenegger or Stallone. He liked being in control and holding a gun onscreen so much that he turned down the chance to play a slave in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) to make the mundane supernatural action thriller Fallen (1998). An interesting choice and one of his lesser films from this phase of his career but his love of action packed movies brought him to Tony Scott, a director who specialized in high octane, kinetic action films and they worked together on Crimson Tide (1995). A submarine movie and arguably one of the best films of both of their careers. They loved working with each other so much that would collaborate four more times on the action films Man on Fire (2004), Deja Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010). Most of those titles fall into Phase Three of Denzel’s career, but his love of being the action hero and working with Tony Scott started in the 1990’s.
This decade was also a very exiting time for Denzel Washington as an actor. He took risks that he has never really taken since. Working with an Indian female director Mira Nair in Mississippi Masala (1991), performing Shakespeare on the big screen in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and starring in the action/sci-fi thriller opposite a then unknown Aussie actor named Russell Crowe as the villainous Sid 6.7 in the highly underrated Virtuosity (1995). The two would work again and oppose each other this time Denzel as the villain and Crowe as the cop in the much more prestigious Ridley Scott crime drama American Gangster (2007), but both are outstanding films on their own and feature terrific lead performances from Denzel. Plus, he starred in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) one of the best performances of his career that remains criminally under-seen and under appreciated. The 1990’s he was acting for the sake of acting and by default delivered some of the best roles of his career and earned his status as one of the best actors of his generation. These were the roles that set him apart from his peers. Regardless of race he elevated every movie he was in.
Denzel would also work with some of the best actors of their era and some of the most prolific directors of all time during the second phase of his career. He worked with Jonathan Demme fresh off his Best Director Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in Philadelphia (1993). Even though Tom Hanks won his first Best Actor statue for Philadelphia, the movie only worked because of Denzel’s performance. The audience saw the film through his eyes. He had the harder job to go from being homophobic to compassionate and understanding of this man and the injustices that he faced and the audience took the journey with his character. Denzel should have been nominated for Philadelphia. He also worked with the late-great director Alan J. Pakula on The Pelican Brief (1993) opposite Julia Roberts who was very vocal on her love and admiration for Denzel. He even starred in the ill-fated Penny Marshall comedy-fantasy The Preacher’s Wife (1996) opposite the late Whitney Houston. He took risks during this stage of his career that he was not able to take before, and he has not taken them since the late 90’s or early 2000’s when he decided he would simply split his time between action movies and Oscar bait roles.
Phase Three: Denzel The Action Star and Denzel the Perennial Oscar Nominee
Not sure but something happened to Denzel around the turn of the century. After The Siege underperformed and lost at the box office to rising star Adam Sandler in The Waterboy (1998), all of Denzel’s work can be split into two very distinct categories: Denzel waving a gun around and being an action star, or Denzel trying to win an Oscar. In 1999 he had two films released and we saw both go these two distinctive Denzel’s on display. Even though he played a quadriplegic former police detective in The Bone Collector (1999) it was directed by Australian Phillip Noyce who was at the time mostly known for action films like the Harrison Ford ‘Jack Ryan’ pictures Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). The plot involved him and his female partner (Angelina Jolie) tracking down a serial killer so it was basically an action thriller. Then the following month he played real-life boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter in The Hurricane (1999). This was to date the hardest that Denzel Washington has campaigned for an Academy Award. He wanted it bad! He was everywhere promoting the film, promoting the real life controversial figure. It was the most shameless he has ever been during awards season and it was all for naught. American Beauty (1999) was the film to beat that year and nothing could. The Hurricane only received one nomination, Washington for Best Actor, and he had to grin and bear it and watch Kevin Spacey take to the stage and win Best Actor two years before Denzel would.
In 2000 he teamed up with Disney and super producer Jerry Bruckheimer for the fact based inspirational sports tale Remember the Titans (2000) set during the early days of integration. Despite glowing reviews and big earnings at the box office, Denzel did not receive a nomination. He then turned his efforts to a film that seemed highly unlikely to receive Oscar recognition as a crooked cop in Training Day (2001). He really sank his teeth into the role. Critics and audiences could tell he was having a lot of fun playing the villain in an action-cop drama. As the great director Sidney Lumet (who coincidentally directed Denzel in the 1986 movie Power) once said, “The Academy Awards is like capturing lightning in a bottle.” Denzel managed to capture it in Training Day and won his second Academy Award and his first for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Considering the other nominees that year, Denzel deserved the Oscar. From that point on Denzel’s career trajectory has been fairly predictable. As much as he loves playing action hero, he loves winning or at least earning Oscar nominations. Every single role he has taken since Training Day falls into one of those two categories.
In 2002 he starred in the slightly ahead of its time health care commentary John Q which was really just far-fetched schmaltz and then that December released his directorial debut Antwone Fisher. Both of which seemed to be attempts at earning award recognition. Then the following year he reunited with Devil in a Blue Dress director Carl Franklin for the steamy action mystery Out of Time (2003), no realistic Oscar goals there, but he was a flawed cop and would play a similar role in his next film, Tony Scott’s Man on Fire remake (2004). Later that year he would work again with his Philadelphia director Jonathan Demme on The Manchurian Candidate remake (2004). This could be seen as both Denzel trying to be the heroic lead in an action packed thriller and also trying to earn Oscar recognition starring opposite Academy darling Meryl Streep in a film directed by an Oscar winning director.
From then on he was back at it working law enforcement officer roles with his frequent collaborators Spike Lee on Inside Man (2006) and Tony Scott on Deja Vu (2006). In 2007 he tried to earn Best Actor and Best Director recognition for two movies, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and The Great Debaters respectively. He was ignored in both but I doubt any would have minded if he were nominated for his portrayal of real life drug dealer Frank Lucas in American Gangster. At this point Denzel was in his mid fifties but had aged exceedingly well. His good looks had not faded and was still able to play the same types of roles he took throughout the 1990’s. Cinema had changed as well, but it seems that Denzel has avoided the usual tropes of being in comic book movies or fantasy adventures. He stars in the hard boiled action dramas that he wants to make or plays the real life figures that he wants to tell their stories to the masses.
His next film was another one with his frequent collaborator Tony Scott on The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 remake (2009). It was another solid action picture and he would work with Tony Scott again on another movie about a train called Unstoppable (2010). Sadly, this would be Tony Scott’s final movie before he tragically took his own life in 2012. Another action movie would follow where Denzel starred opposite Ryan Reynolds in Safe House (2012) which is probably Denzel’s worst movie to date and then he was successful in earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in his next film, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2012). Denzel was great as he usually is, but the film was about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. Denzel fell back into his action movie glory for his next roles 2 Guns (2013) alongside Mark Wahlberg and the film adaptation of the hit 1980’s TV series The Equalizer (2014). Neither of which were particularly good, but he is getting at least $20 million dollars per film at this point so Denzel has solidified himself as one of Hollywoods most successful and longest enduring leading men.
His formula of one for the action crowd and one for the awards voters continued in 2016 when he remade The Magnificant Seven (2016) working again with Antoine Fuqua who directed him to his Oscar win in Training Day and his very lucrative role in The Equalizer. The same year Denzel directed himself to an Oscar nomination for his movie adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences (2016). Although many predicted he would win, Denzel lost to Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea (2016) but he did direct Viola Davis to win Best Supporting Actress for her performance as his long struggling wife. Let’s face it, if that Oscar race were to have taken place a few months later there is no doubt that Denzel would have taken the gold regardless of who gave the better performance since Casey Affleck has become a pariah due to his treatment of women. This brings us up to 2018. Denzel scored a Best Actor nomination for his little seen Roman J. Israel Esquire most likely because the tide had shifted against James Franco after allegations of sexual misconduct with women. He lost to Gary Oldman (who had his own skeletons in his closet dealing with women) as real life Englishman Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2016) and few will fault the Academy for their decision in that contest. Now Denzel is back focusing on being an action hero yet again in The Equalizer sequel. I would love to see Denzel Washington return to just acting for the sake of acting and not with the motive of selecting scripts to win awards or be a hot shot firing a gun. These have been the two modes Denzel has been stuck on for nearly the past two decades. Who knows what the future will bring, but I would love to see him challenge himself and work with great directors out of his comfort zone and see a whole new side of Denzel Washington that we have not seen in his almost forty years on screen.
Check out this montage of his career highlights.
The Ten Best Denzel Washington Movies:
- Malcolm X (1992)
- Glory (1989)
- Training Day (2001)
- Crimson Tide (1995)
- Courage Under Fire (1996)
- He Got Game (1998)
- American Gangster (2007)
- Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
- The Siege (1998)
- Virtuosity (1995)
Honorable Mention: Remember the Titans (2000), Unstoppable (2010), Fences (2016), Philadelphia (1993), and Cry Freedom (1987)
Here is Denzel winning the Best Actor Academy Award for Training Day.