Denzel Washington is one of the greatest actors of any generation. His charisma and intensity have translated into some powerful dramatic roles, and he’s proven himself to be incredibly versatile over the years. Few other great movie stars can swing from wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland (Book of Eli) to a 1940s gumshoe (Devil in a Blue Dress) to a real-life Harlem crime boss (American Gangster), but Washington hardly seems to break a sweat.
With Washington’s role as the doomed Thane of Cawdor in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth already generating Oscar buzz, here are his eleven best performances, ranked.
Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis returned to live-action filmmaking with 2012’s Flight, which follows William “Whip” Whitaker, Sr. (Washington), an alcoholic airline pilot who manages an incredible crash-landing after a mechanical breakdown mid-flight. Hailed as a hero after nearly everyone on board survived, the investigation into the crash thrusts him into the public eye, threatening to expose the cracks under the surface of his life.
Washington digs deep to find the folds and contradictions of Whip, a good but deeply flawed man. Divorced and emotionally stunted, Whip is desperate to hide the fact that he was drunk while he landed that plane, and thus would be liable for the six people who died, including a flight attendant he was sleeping with and a child she tried to save. The finale edges into overly sentimental territory, but Washington keeps it grounded, showing us this man’s heart-wrenching breaking point.
10. He Got Game
Convict Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is given seven days to convince his high school basketball star son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor of New York’s alma mater. In return, Jake will have his sentence considerably reduced. Writer/director Spike Lee spins a simple premise into visual poetry as he tracks the complex, often heartbreaking dynamics between father and son. Both love basketball, and both are haunted by the death of Jesus’ mother. Jake accidentally killed her, and Jesus cannot forgive him.
In other hands, He Got Game might have been a saccharine, cliché-ridden tearjerker. In Lee’s and Washington’s hands, it’s sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt in its mural-like approach to the dangerous, seductive world swirling around Jesus. Slimy sports agents, college basketball scouts, even his so-called girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) pull him in different directions, each wanting a piece. Jake stands in the middle of it, balancing his needs with what’s best for his son. Jake is no saint, and Washington never shies away from his character’s flaws and failings. Jake understands that Jesus must save himself and his sister, and comes to accept that the best thing he can do as a father is walk away.
9. Remember the Titans
Based on the (sort of) true story of how high school football coach Herman Boone (Washington) integrated the T.C. Williams High School team and overcame institutionalized racism, Remember the Titans is an engaging (if predictable) football drama. The central performances elevate this collection of broad stereotypes. Washington’s Coach Boone butts heads with the school’s long-time head coach, Bill Yoast (the terrific Will Patton), while the elite Black and white players struggle to coalesce as a team.
Filled with familiar faces, such as young Ryan Gosling, Kate Bosworth, Hayden Panettiere, and Ethan Suplee, Remember the Titans is a throwback to the kinds of “message” movies Hollywood made in decades past. Washington’s charisma holds the screen, adding dimension to a slightly underwritten character. Both Coach Boone and Coach Yoast must push back against the pressures of the larger culture, and while the plot may be creaky, Washington’s performance, in particular, shines through.
Washington directs and stars in Fences, a 2016 adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Denzel, as a director, is not known for his stylistic flourishes. Indeed, despite some exterior scenes following the main character, illiterate garbage man Troy Maxson, on his daily route, the film often feels as stage-bound as most other play adaptations.
On a performance level, Washington draws some masterful work from Viola Davis (both of whom won Tonys for these roles on Broadway) as Troy’s long-suffering wife, Rose. He ably chews the scenery as Troy, a man with big appetites and a big presence. His bluster and captivating personal charisma mask deep-seated insecurities. Troy was a Negro League baseball player who remains bitter that he missed his chance to join the Major League. Washington finds the toxic strain of self-righteous victimhood in this man, who builds a fence to keep his family close, but tragically loses what he loved.
7. Crimson Tide
The first of Washington’s many collaborations with the late, great Tony Scott, Crimson Tide is one of the most entertaining submarine movies Hollywood ever pumped out. With the added benefit of dialogue punched up by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino, Washington more than rises to the level of the great Gene Hackman. Washington’s Lt. Commander Hunter joins the crew of the sub called the USS Alabama under the tough, old-school Captain Ramsey (Hackman).
The creaky premise — Russian separatists seize a nuclear missile facility and could potentially cause a nuclear war — feels less like Cold War-era jingoism with Russia currently rattling sabers on the world stage. It’s a popcorn flick to be sure, but Washington’s charisma holds the screen in a committed performance. He’s electric in his scenes with Hackman, with supporting players like Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini all raising Crimson Tide to the level of a gripping thriller which still works today.
6. Training Day
Washington won his Best Actor Oscar for director Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. Written by future Suicide Squad director David Ayer, Training Day follows rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on his first day on the elite street squad led by the corrupt, megalomaniac police lieutenant Alonzo Harris (Washington).
As Alonzo, Washington is charming, seductive, manipulative, frightening, and viciously cold-blooded. Hawke meets Washington’s level of work, as the naive Hoyt allows himself to be swept along in Alonzo’s wake. The last act hinges on a wildly improbable coincidence, but the acting sells it nevertheless. Washington’s Oscar win seemed like a make-up prize for his many worthy roles before Training Day, but Alonzo Harris finds him veering way out of his comfort zone. He’s a snarling human monster here, and his accolades were well-deserved.
5. Courage Under Fire
Notable for featuring perhaps Meg Ryan’s greatest performance (outside of When Harry Met Sally), Glory director Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire takes a Rashomon-style approach as it examines an incident during the first Gulf War. Lt. Colonel Serling (Washington) commanded a tank battalion during the war, accidentally destroying one of his own tanks during a chaotic night run. He remains haunted years later, an alcoholic with a fraying marriage tasked with investigating the final mission of Captain Karen Walden (Ryan is excellent, both tough and vulnerable), the first woman nominated posthumously for the Medal of Honor.
Washington looks inward to deliver a riveting performance as a man who is slowly imploding and yet must determine what really happened the night of Walden’s death. Her surviving crew — including a standout Lou Diamond Phillips and a young Matt Damon — each tell a different story about how Walden held off enemy combatants after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. Was she a hero or a coward? Washington deftly navigates his character’s conflict as the entire experience brings up his own demons from the war. Courage Under Fire remains one his most underrated films.
Since its inception, Hollywood has been (and to some fundamental degree remains) a cowboy town. It took a very long time for mainstream movies to depict queerness as something other than a criminal perversion. While the early ‘90s found society transforming to become more inclusive and fluid, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia comes off as an earnest, if clunky, attempt to explore institutionalized homophobia.
Tom Hanks won his first Best Actor Oscar as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer with a prestigious Philly law firm. After Andrew contracts AIDS and is fired over a manufactured mistake, he sues his former firm for discrimination. The homophobic Joe Miller (Washington) takes his case, and must slowly get over his own prejudice to help Andy find justice. Hanks won nearly every acting award that year for his touching, sensitive performance, but Washington is his equal. As a family man who wants to correct an injustice, Washington makes a gradual, believable shift away from overt homophobia to seeing Andy as a human being who is dying quite rapidly and deserves justice. Philadelphia is an un-subtle message movie by today’s standards, but as a proxy for an uncomfortable straight, cisgendered audience, Washington responds to Andrew Beckett’s plight with his moments of grace and understanding.
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington and William Shakespeare go back a long way. Washington appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, and played Brutus in Julius Caesar on Broadway. However, as the doomed Scottish king in writer-director Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Washington takes center stage in this endlessly fascinating story of hubris and personal disaster.
Coen expertly edits the play, retaining much of his juiciest dialogue while stripping away much of the fat. Kathyrn Hunter’s justifiably-celebrated performance as the Weird Sisters sets the off-kilter tone, but Washington gives us a monumental Macbeth. Initially conflicted over his prophesied rise to the throne, he nonetheless gives in to his ambition, prodded along by his wife, the Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand, every bit Washington’s equal). While other actors have given us more masculine versions of the character (Patrick Stewart) or leaned toward an avant-garde take (Ian McKellan), Washington’s Macbeth is emotionally broken by his own hubris. It is undoubtedly one of the star’s finest performances.
By 1989, Washington was a familiar face, if not a household name. He had spent the ‘80s on TV’s St. Elsewhere, with a handful of roles in less-than-memorable films (with the fine A Soldier’s Story a standout). 1989’s Glory won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his staggering performance as an ex-slave who enlists in the first African regiment during the Civil War, and it made him a star.
As the hotheaded Pvt. Trip, Washington owns the screen. Even in the company of actors like Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, who play fellow soldiers, Washington is mesmerizing. Trip bucks authority at every turn, and is whipped when he technically deserts simply to find a pair of shoes. The scene of his punishment alone, as he strips to the waist exposing a field of scars across his back from his years as a slave, likely won him his first Academy Award. Tears spill from his eyes as he glares at Col. Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick), communicating with a single look that he’s no different from the slave masters who have whipped him countless times before.
1. Malcolm X
Biopics are infamous for staggering under the weight of trying to squeeze the scope and consequence of an entire life into a neat, two-hour running time. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X bucks the trend, even as it stretches itself to look at the life of the fiery Nation of Islam minister and human rights activist from almost every possible angle. Washington is simply uncanny in the role. He captures Malcolm’s mannerisms and cadence, but also the quiet confidence which often masked a species of righteous anger.
Working from the autobiography Malcolm X dictated to Roots author Alex Haley, Lee tracks Malcolm from his rough upbringing to his youth as a petty drug dealer and thief, to his conversion to Islam while in prison. He emerges as one of the most pivotal civil rights figures of the 1960s, preaching a message that was very different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Medgar Evers. Washington is a revelation in the role, moving from slick street hustler to empowered leader without losing the man’s pent-up fury when he learns that his love for Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad is reciprocated with jealousy and bile. Malcolm X is one of the major films of the 1990s and is the performance that should have won Washington his first Oscar as Best Actor.