If you look at a list of the best and most critically acclaimed actors of our time, Denzel Washington would likely be near the top of that list. The six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner is capable of playing both over the top characters, but can also slow it down and get serious.
With more than 30 years in the business, Denzel Washington has more than his fair share of breathtaking performances, which made narrowing it down to ten no easy task. But here they are, the ten best performances of Denzel Washington’s spectacular career.
Despite Tom Hanks getting a lot of praise and winning an Oscar for his rendition of a gay lawyer who is fired wrongfully because he contracted AIDS, Denzel Washington actually had the more difficult, and some would say, more impressive role. Denzel Washington played a homophobic lawyer who begrudgingly accepts Hanks’s character’s case and, over the length of the film, fights his own prejudices. This belongs on this list solely because of the development that Washington had to put his character through throughout the entirety of the film. This film itself also got praise as it was one of the first major motion pictures to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia.
In almost any other incarnation, with any other actor playing the lead role, this would have flopped overall as a film. But with a star such as Denzel Washington at the helm, his performance saved the film without a doubt. In Flight, Denzel Washington plays an alcohol and drug addicted pilot, who manages to be the ultimate hero and land a malfunctioning aircraft and save all aboard. This was evidence that Denzel Washington is not afraid to take on a largely unglamorous and unsympathetic role, but he still managed to play it perfectly and shine in a role that most would not be able to. His performance was so stellar that he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, even though the film as a whole wasn’t that great.
8. Inside Man
Inside Man is an American crime thriller that centers on an elaborate bank heist that takes place on Wall Street over a 24-hour period. The film stars Denzel Washington as Detective Keith Frazier, who is an NYPD hostage negotiator. His performance here is made increasingly better by the fact that he is able to put a charming spin on this rather serious role of a hostage negotiator, who is claimed to be corrupt and being caught in the middle of this bank heist. This is just one more movie in a long line of films that cements Washington as a certified badass with an unmatched bravado on the screen. This was also the fourth collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Spike Lee.
7. The Manchurian Candidate
Throughout his career, Denzel Washington is accustomed to and best known for playing strong characters in films, but his role in The Manchurian Candidate was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Washington plays Bennett Marco, a hardworking and kindhearted soldier who is paranoid throughout the film. When Bennett was a soldier, he and other men in his unit were brainwashed and now one of them is running for office, and no one believes the stories that Marco is telling about her past. This role showed that not only can Washington put on great performances as a tough and strong character, but also one who is on the defensive and shows a little bit of weakness.
6. The Hurricane
In The Hurricane, Denzel Washington plays the role of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the film, we are with Carter in his time in prison, where he is a defeated man with little hope, trying to accept his fate. This is a very sentimental story, but Washington rises above it to deliver a fantastic performance that thrives in his quietest moments. The way Washington reacts to good news with a reserved but impactful expression is powerful, and so are the moments were he is at his lowest, such as saying goodbye to his wife after being imprisoned. His great performance didn’t go unnoticed as he received a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars for this role.
5. American Gangster
This was one of Denzel Washington’s best, but least remembered films of his career. In American Gangster, Denzel Washington plays real-life New York gangster and heroin kingpin, Frank Lucas. He puts on a great performance as a “smooth” and man who even comes off as somewhat likeable, even though in reality he is a terribly awful man just under that sly and smooth surface. Despite Russell Crowe’s character in the movie being a hero, it is the darker and more mysterious character of Denzel Washington that entices the viewer and draws them in to follow him deeper into the underworld of crime in New York.
4. Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans is based on the real-life story of a Virginia high school’s first racially integrated football team. In the film, Denzel Washington plays the role of Herman Boone, the school’s head coach, and is the first black head coach in school history, who was hired to first bring the team together and then bring them to victory. Whether he was pushing and leading the team to perfection on the field or helping them grow in the quieter and tenderer moments, almost like a father, Washington’s performance was great and really showed how to employ tough love the right way.
This is without a doubt the role that catapulted Denzel Washington into super-stardom. Glory is a war film about the first formal unit of the Union Army during the American Civil War, which was made up entirely of African-American men. In the movie, Washington plays Trip, who is a rebellious slave who is turned into a charismatic soldier. The look in Washington’s eyes during the infamous whipping scene all but guaranteed his spot in history. Before the scene, Washington said that he channelled the spirits of the former slaves and looked to act with arrogance, as if he were really a slave about to be whipped. It is that kind of dedication and passion for a project that helped Denzel Washington win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor because of this role.
2. Training Day
This performance was likely the most shocking and provocative role of his career, which also earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. In Training Day, Denzel Washington plays Alonzo Harris, who is a corrupt LAPD narcotics detective. Throughout the movie, he takes a rookie cop (played by Ethan Hawke) for a drug and gang violence-filled ride through the city. For most people in the audience, this was the first time they saw Denzel Washington in a role that wasn’t him portrayed as a moralistic hero, but as a ruthless villain. But his brilliant performance here showed that he is capable of both playing the good guy and the bad guy to perfection.
1. Malcolm X
This shouldn’t surprise anybody, as this is without a doubt the best performance in Washington’s entire career, even though he was snubbed at the Oscars. In Malcolm X, the audience didn’t believe that Washington played Malcolm X, he became him. After researching the role for years and playing Malcolm X on stage, he finally brought the performance to the big screen and wowed viewers around the world. In the film, he accomplishes a near impossible feat by playing this highly influential and controversial figure to perfection, all while respecting his legacy. Washington’s role helped catapult this film into history as it is often referred to as one of the best movies of the 1990s by a variety of critics.