Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington‘s acting career may have begun in the late 70s, but his performances today are just as relevant and memorable as the ones that brought Washington to prominence. Known for his dramatic and action films, Washington is equally talented when it comes to producing, directing, and performing on stage in Broadway. It’s clear when watching one of his films that we are watching someone perform with exceptional detail and dedication to his craft. Washington’s acclaim is more than earned, and for that we focus our December 2022 on a few of our favorites from his filmography.

Mississippi Masala (1991)

MV5BZjlmNDZmNmItZTJiZS00YTcyLWE0YTYtOTE1YmM3ZTcwNmM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_Denzel Washington is a versatile, almost chameleonic actor with tons of charisma, yet he is one of the few major actors that came up during the ‘90s that was rarely cast as a romantic lead. He is in relationships, married usually, but Washington himself would put the kibosh on explicitly romantic relationships, which happened on The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts. So it is a marvel to see him play a romantic lead in the small immigrant drama Mississippi Masala. Mira Nair’s drama about Ugandan immigrants who are ethnically Indian is a intimate, richly drawn portrait of not just Mina’s (Sarita Choudhury) life, but her budding romance with carpet cleaner Demetrius (Washington), and the Indian and Black communities that they are both part of. The intimacy with which Nair shoots scenes with both Choudhury and Washington is complemented by their undeniable chemistry. Washington does an excellent portraying both a charming, confident man yet one with undeniable emotional baggage. Mississippi Masala contains only a brief hint at what could have been a fruitful career as a romantic leading man for Washington, but fate (and the Hollywood system) apparently had other plans. – Eugene Kang

Malcolm X (1992)

MV5BNGY5ODAzZjYtMDJkYS00ZWVjLTgwYWEtNDRkMjhmMTVmYjIxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_Portraying the life of Malcolm X from his teenage years to his self-discovery to his years as a revolutionary, Malcolm X has a broad scope that rests on Denzel Washington’s shoulders in order to tell fully. Washington portrays Malcolm X not just as a civil rights figure, but as a person. Scenes at the barbershop, a party, the classroom, and meeting his wife grant familiarity to the larger-than-life figure and show Malcolm X as a person with aspirations, humor, and even as someone who was imperfect. Spike Lee’s film shows Malcolm X’s progression into a formidable leader and orator, and Washington portrays this journey of self-discovery by disappearing into the role. We see a man who becomes hungry for change and whose eyes are opened to see suppression and coercion of Black Americans into believing they are not equal and not as deserving as White Americans. We see a man who hurts from how eager he is to live in a better world.

Malcolm X provides insight into a number of experiences and influences that led Malcolm X to become the person he was, most notably his friendship with the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). When X determines his beliefs do not align with the Nation of Islam or even with speeches he gave in the past supporting racial separation rather than tolerance, he left the organization, prompting death threats and intimidation. Washington shows that Malcolm X was someone who was capable of handling crises with grace and who could stand by his principles and his integrity, something we should all aspire to. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X presents Malcolm X as more than a controversial civil rights leader, Denzel Washington’s performance providing great depth in examining Malcolm X’s life and accomplishments. – Alex Sitaras

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

MV5BMjNhNTEzNDQtNTJjYi00ODBiLThjZmYtNTlmN2IzM2VhNzE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_In an adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel of the same name, Devil in a Blue Dress centers around Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) as he navigates the underworld of 1940s Los Angeles through a perspective untold in the noir genre. Washington stars as a World War II veteran who has lost his job and is approached for a bit of private detective work to pay the mortgage. The investigation is to find Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a White-passing woman who loves “jazz, pigs’ feet, and dark meat” with a connection with a L.A. mayoral candidate.

Easy quietly transforms to fit the shoes required by the task’s intricacies, with an incredible performance by Don Cheadle as Raymond “Mouse” Alexander at his side. Easy is cautious in his approach to finding Daphne because of the climate for Black people in Los Angeles at the time — and also having been beaten by cops and threatened in interactions with his “handler.” Washington’s performance is less of the free-fall into psychological battles that noir often relies upon, and more of a balancing act. Race is not an obstacle that the stars of the classic Hollywood noirs faced, and each moment where the social realities of the time give rise to further complications — such as driving Daphne around late at night or waiting on the Malibu Pier, Washington masterfully imbues into his character subtle acknowledgments to the past constraints of the genre while evolving from the violence-averse veteran once there are no other opportunities left to pursue to make a living. 

The realities of the time force Easy to reconcile the danger of his new escapades into the world of private investigation with his lack of other options, a reminder of how racism and a dearth of opportunity following the war forced his hand. Washington performs in this role with the utmost subtlety and care. – Lauren Mattice

Training Day (2001)

MV5BNDYxNDY5MTI4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQ0MzMzMTI@._V1_In Training Day, Denzel Washington plays Alonzo Harris, and is far from seeming composed. He is a hothead detective and Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) finds himself completely over his head on his first day at the job shadowing Alonzo. In just a matter of hours, Alonzo has coerced Jake into smoking marijuana laced with PCP confiscated from teenagers and the two visit an ex-cop turned drug dealer. ‘Intel’, Alonzo would say.

Hoyt’s first day on the job turns into a crash course on corruption, but he trusts Alonzo. At least, to a point. Washington plays the role of Alonzo with enough charm and charisma that we are likewise along for the ride, knowing that what we’re seeing is blatant criminality and nonetheless debating if there is a method to Alonzo’s madness. In the hands of a lesser actor, Alonzo’s role could come across as much too brash much too soon, but Denzel Washington is capable of reigning in Alonzo’s intensity where necessary in order to maintain Hoyt’s trust. Washington’s role as Alonzo won him the Academy Award for Best Actor, winning over Russell Crowe’s compelling performance as John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind– Alex Sitaras

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

MV5BMDNjMzYzNTktY2Y3MS00NTk0LThkYWMtZDcwMGMzM2M0YWZmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_As some actors approach the twilight years of their careers, they chose to perform in action movies. Liam Neeson perhaps popularized this trend with the Taken trilogy, but Denzel Washington has followed this trend with films like 2 Guns and The Equalizer franchise. However, Washington has also continued to take on dramatic roles where he can arguably challenge himself, and The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of these. Performing in a prominent Shakespearean role is often seen as an opportunity for an actor to showcase their ability. Washington has done the same, but as a reminder, he still has ‘it’. His performance has great gravitas, but not so much so that his portrayal appears heightened, as Shakespeare often is, and is engaging. It is one of three films in the last five years that Washington has received an Academy Award nomination for Actor in a Leading Role. – Ian Floodgate

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