The Top 10 Best Denzel Washington Performances

There is a certain level of fame that a person transcends when they are only known by one name. Elvis is like that. Dylan is like that. This phenomenon is most prominent in music but there is one actor working today that is on that level; Denzel. When Denzel is uttered there cannot be anyone else that comes to mind but the great Denzel Washington. Denzel has been acting for over 40 years now winning two Academy Awards, a Tony Award and the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also without a doubt one of the few textbook definition of a movie star left. His movies consistently make money and his involvement in a project could be the tipping point in getting it made. Washington has transcended a level of stardom that is not seen with many black actors while never letting it compromising his race. Blackness is essential to Denzel’s character and that is a part of his package. In honor of the great actor, we are going to look back at his ten greatest onscreen performances. This doesn’t mean that it is his best movies.

If you think we left anything out or disagree with the order, please comment below.

 10. Hurricane

Synopsis: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington) was a boxer on the rise. That was until a fateful night in New Jersey when Carter was convicted of a triple homicide which he said he did not do. Threatened with spending the prime of his life in jail, Carter all but gives up on his claims of innocence until three Canadian lawyers decide to get him out.

Why Denzel is Great: Hurricane is not a great film but is anchored by a strong Denzel performance. Washington has always been great at showing the maturity of an actor from beginning to end. His Rubin Carter is filled with anger and pride in the beginning of the film to someone who is humbled by the trajectory his life has taken him. Denzel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance.

Best Denzel Quote: “He who bemoans the lack of opportunity, forgets that small doors many times opens up into large rooms.”

9. Antwone Fisher

Synopsis: Based on the true story of a naval officer, Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), whose temper forces him to attend mandatory meeting with a naval psychiatrist (Denzel Washington). Through counseling, revelations are revealed of the young man’s past that prevents him from moving on.

Why Denzel is Great: Denzel tried his hand at directing with this feature from 2002. The only reason he played the psychiatrist role is to get the appropriate funding for the film. What is remarkable about Denzel’s performance is how much restraint he gives to the part. This movie is a showcase for Derek Luke as the eponymous character and Washington as the perfect scene partner gives him every opportunity to shine. As an experienced pro working with an actor in his first film, Washington is able to communicate every moment with a controlled tempo in this emotionally devastating and underrated film.

8. American Gangster

Synopsis: Based on a true story, Denzel Washington plays Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas who instrumental in trafficking heroin into New York City in the 70’s. Part drug kingpin and part Robin-Hood type figure for the disenfranchised, Lucas is aggressively pursued by detective Richie Roberts (Russel Crowe).

Why Denzel is Great: To be honest, this movie is not good. It is too long and a slog to get through. But, Denzel’s Frank Lucas is character brought to life. Denzel barely ever raises a voice or shows anger in this role. There is no Denzel swagger in this role. No, on the outside, his Lucas is a perfect cool, calm and collected. Yet, underneath the superficiality, there is a bubbling of anger. Thus each act of violence hits hard and does not relent.  

Best Denzel Quote: “The loudest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room.”

7. Inside Man

Synopsis: When a bank robber (Clive Owen) sets out to plan the perfect bank robbery it is up to an NYPD hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) to make sure that no one gets hurt. As the robbery progresses, it becomes evidently clear that this robbery was not just for money.

Why Denzel is Great: The collaboration between Spike Lee and Denzel Washington is one of the great cinematic pairings of all time (spoiler alert, there will be more of their movies on this list). Most actors would mail in the role that Washington has but here Denzel is able to infuse pathos through subtle actions. Denzel’s Frazier is a combination of street cop and a Dashell Hammet sleuth trying to figure out this cat and mouse game that he found himself in. When a person is shot in the bank the stylistic flourish of Lee and the lost in the eyes look that Denzel gives is sublime.

Best Denzel Quote: (In reference to Owen saying he would escape to sip on Pina Coladas with two women) “More like taking a shower with two guys named Jamal and Jesus, if you know what I mean. And here’s the bad news: that thing you’re sucking on? It’s not a pina colada!”

6. Training Day

Synopsis: A young fresh faced rookie, Jake Hoyt, (Ethan Hawke) has to go on a ride along with an experienced veteran detective, Alonzo Harris, (Denzel Washington) in South Central, LA. Hoyt soon finds that being on the field is a dangerous place for someone with no knowledge of the rules of the streets.

Why Denzel is Great: Training Day is probably Denzel’s signature role. That is because Alonzo Harris is the ultimate movie villain. He has a philosophy that he lives and dies by. He is smart and charismatic and most importantly has a purpose. This role set the tempo for Denzel’s career in the new millennium, cementing his status as not only an actor but a legitimate badass action star. Washington is so wonderfully over the top in this movie, yet he sells every moment of it. It takes a special actor to shoot gangstas in one scene with one gun cocked sideways and the other one normally to form a cross and still look cool. That pushed him over the edge to make Denzel the first African American actor to win Best Actor since Sidney Poitier. There has not been another African American winner in the category since.

Best Denzel Quote: “Motherfucker. You shot me in the ass!”

5. Glory

Synopsis: Set in the American Civil War, Glory follows the first all African American company in the American army. That doesn’t mean they were widely accepted. Led by a white Captain, these group of soldiers not only fight in the battlefield but fight with the prejudice and hate they experience on their own side.

Why Denzel is Great: For many people, Denzel Washington as Private Trip cemented him as a big screen star (Unless you watched the TV series, St. Elsewhere of course). No longer can you deny the raw power and intensity of him as an actor. As the rebellious Trip, Washington was able to overcome the narrative restraints of the white savior narrative to become a portrait of a soldier who has been so beaten by the system that there is no institution he can trust anymore (He had already had to do that with Cry Freedom). The whipping scene is tough to watch but Denzel was able to pull off the dignified strength that was needed to prevent it from becoming exploitation. Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.

4. He Got Game

Synopsis: Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) is the top basketball prospect in the nation. Every college is vying for him to join their program. Just as the pressures of success begins to weigh in on him, his father (Denzel Washington), who was in jail for manslaughter, rejoins his life.

Why Denzel is Great: This is the second Spike Lee Joint on the list (and once again not the last). The best Denzel roles are whenever he does not play to the cliché of what the role is. As the Jake Shuttlesworth who has nefarious intentions for his son, there is a way to play this character too broadly. Yet, with Denzel, he plays understated bringing humanity to the role. He is not a bad man per se but misguided. Washington once again plays a supporting role, propping up an inexperience actor to one of the best athlete performances in cinema. The one-on-one basketball scene in the film is one of the best scenes in sports movie history.

Best Denzel Quote: Jake: “What are you studying?”

                                Mary: “Cells”

                               Jake: “Yeah, me too.”

3. Mo’ Better Blues

Synopsis: Ever since Bleek (Denzel Washington) was a child, all he knew was jazz. Jazz serves as his obsession and it informs everything he does. Problems occur when friendships and romance tries to take over jazz as the number one priority in life.

Why Denzel is Great: Mo’ Better Blues is the most underrated film on the list with the misfortune of being Spike Lee’s follow-up to the canonical Do the Right Thing. Yet, this film about obsession and jazz music predates Whiplash by fifteen years and could be a better film about the subject matter. Denzel here not only plays his usual dramatic role but he shows different dimensions as Bleek. Not often enough is he called upon to be a romantic lead. Yet, here he plays one part of the movie as if it was a romantic comedy, making it a shame that there has never been more of those roles available for him. When he is onstage, Washington is a whole different animal. Assisted by the virtuosity of early 90’s Spike Lee, this is one of Denzel’s most underrated role and film.

Best Denzel Quote: “I may have been born yesterday but I was up all night.”

2. Philadelphia

Synopsis: When prominent corporate lawyer, Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), is fired, he seeks the help of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to sue his employers for unduly firing him for having AIDs.

Why Denzel is Great: Looking back on it with 2016 eyes, Philadelphia is an extremely problematic, but goodhearted, movie. Most people remember the film as a showcase for Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award that year for best actor. But, that is a role with a low degree of difficulty. Sympathy and drama is embedded in that character. Denzel Washington as Joe Miller was the key to movie. Washington is essentially playing the Jimmy Stewart character in a film that owes a lot to the Capra movies of the past. Miller is made to learn from his prejudices and grow as a human being. But, Denzel does more than simply be the Jimmy Stewart or a straight man to Tom Hanks. In one scene involving Beckett explaining the pleasures of opera to Miller, you see Denzel’s entire being change in a way that no actor ever does. Go to Philadelphia for Tom Hanks but leave for Denzel.

Best Denzel Quote: “This is the essence of discrimination: formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.”  

1.  Malcolm X

Synopsis: The three-hour epic film covers the life and death of the influential and controversial militant civil rights leader Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) from his days as a bookie to his conversion to the Nation of Islam to his trip to Mecca.

Why Denzel is Great: This is the height of the Spike Lee-Denzel Washington collaboration. Both talents were firing on all cylinders at the highest level. Watching the virtuoso acting of Washington and Lee’s filmmaking at this point would be akin to watching Ruth and Gehrig hit back to back or Joe Montana passing a football to Jerry Rice. Washington is not just playing Malcolm X. He is playing three distinct character because that is the many facets of the person he is playing. He is young and immature to strong, powerful and angry all the way to blissful defiance. Washington is not simply doing an impression but channeling the soul of Malcolm X. This is a person whose voice and image was capture on camera and displayed everywhere. Yet, Denzel’s performance transcends that to the point that when I think about Malcolm X, I see Denzel as him. Washington may not have won the Oscar for this role (losing to Al Pacino of all movies Scent of Woman) but when he won for Training Day, I always assumed it was an apology for not giving him the award for Malcolm X.

Best Denzel Quote: “Like every other hustler, I was trapped. Cats that hung out together trying to find solution found nothing. Cats that might have probed space or cured cancer, West Indian Archie might been a mathematical genius… but we were all victims of the American social order.”