With Flight being released this week, I figured I’d look back at the 10 best performances by Denzel Washington. Washington is undeniably a great actor, and he can almost always be counted on to deliver a good performance – no matter how bad the movie itself is (John Q., Fallen, The Bone Collector, The Pelican Brief, etc). He elevates nearly every movie he’s in. As you will see from the list, I am certainly a fan of his work with Spike Lee – but Washington has been great in any number of movies. The buzz suggests he’s a lock for another Oscar nomination for Flight – it would be his sixth nomination, although he has not been nominated since the last time he won in 2001.
10. The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme, 2004)
John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original version of The Manchurian Candidate is one of the greatest, paranoid, political thrillers ever made – and although fewer people noticed, Jonathan Demme does it justice in his 2004 remake. No, it’s not the masterpiece the first film was, but it is still a top notch thriller, updated brilliantly (no commies this time, just the Manchurian Corporation, buying and selling politicians). Meryl Streep delivered one of her best recent performances as the stage mother from hell, and she stole most of the praise for the film. And yet Washington, who we are used to seeing as an action star, does something different in this film – he makes his Ben Marco into a jittery, paranoid bordering on insane man, haunted by nightmares and his own demons. It was easier to accept Frank Sinatra knew the truth – harder to picture Washington in this film knowing anything – he literally seems crazy. Washington doesn’t hold back, he goes right at the role, and he is one of the reasons it works so damn well. An under rated performance to be sure.
9. Cry Freedom (Richard Attenborough, 1988)
Most people have probably forgotten all about Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom in the 24 years since the film was released – and there’s a reason for that. Here is the story of Steve Biko, a South African leader who fought against Apartheid told entirely from the point of view of a white liberal (Kevin Kline), who befriends him, and when Biko is murdered at the halfway point of the movie, the film switches to Kline’s efforts to get out of Africa so he can publish the book Biko has written. Telling Biko’s story this way allows Attenborough to have a false happy ending – Kline getting to freedom – instead of an authentic sad one – Biko’s murder at the hands of the police. So why then is this film on the list? Because Washington in that first half of the film is brilliant as Biko – so much so that we wish the movie were actually about him, his life and his work, and not about the brave white guy who visited him a few times and smuggled his book out. Had the movie actually been about Biko – and had allowed Washington a chance to play him from beginning to end, the movie could have been great. Now, the only reason to watch it is to see a young, brilliant Washington at the height of his powers. Pity.
8. Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)
Carl Franklin made his debut film, One False Move, in 1992, the same year Quentin Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs, and if you look at the year-end critics’ awards, it was Franklin and not Tarantino who won most of the “Breakthrough Director” Awards. Sadly, Franklin has become merely a footnote in cinema history, and that’s too bad because One False Move is one of the best crime dramas of the 1990s, and his follow-up film, Devil in a Blue Dress, is a nifty little, almost all black film noir – featuring Washington at his best as P.I. East Rawlins (not to mention giving Don Cheadle his breakout role as the insane killer Mouse). The period details of L.A. in 1948 – and not the L.A. of 1948 we normally see, but the black L.A. – are amazingly well done. Washington fits nicely into the mold of noir detectives like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. Washington knows he’s playing an archetype – but he does it so well. An underrated gem.
7. Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993)
Tom Hanks may have won an Oscar for Philadelphia, but I’ve always thought that Washington had the more difficult, complex role. Yes, I am impressed with Hanks, and the makeup team behind the movie, as he slowly wastes away from AIDS, but it is Washington as his lawyer – who starts off more than a little homophobic, but gradually learns to respect, and even love his client, that really transforms through the course of the movie. The film is almost more about his journey than Hanks’ – and Washington nails the role. Yes, I think it’s a shame that the first time Hollywood really decided to tackle the AIDS issue, they had to shoehorn it into a genre they understand – the courtroom drama – but that doesn’t detract from Washington’s excellent performance.
6. The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999)
Norman Jewison’s movie, about Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer falsely convicted of murder in the late 1960s and spend more than 2 decades in jail has its fair share of problems – but none of them involve Washington’s performance as the man himself. Carter is understandably cynical and not very hopeful that the people who tell him they’re going to get him out of jail are going to be able to succeed where everyone else has failed – he is certainly not a warm and cuddly character. But he imbues Carter with dignity and righteous anger. And he carries the movie.
5. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
Inside Man is perhaps the most underrated film of Spike Lee’s career. It was a box office hit, and most critics praised the film as being an excellent example of its genre – the heist thriller. But Lee could not resist putting his own spin on the material – and inside this genre film, Lee makes some comments on morality, money, greed and race – themes that have obsessed him in recent years. And it is also an underrated performance by Washington – as a cop under investigation for stealing money, who gets put in the middle of a hostage situation, in which some of the very issues he is dealing with in his Internal Affairs investigation come up. Washington is in movie star mode here to be sure, but there are subtleties to this performance that were missed by many – perhaps most especially at the films end. Did anyone else notice that the case against him was dropped, but at no time is it said that he is innocent?
4. Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
I have a few problems with Edward Zwick’s Glory – the biggest being that it is a film about an “all black” platoon of soldiers fighting for the Union in the Civil War, and yet is told from the point of view of the white commanding officers. Overall however, this is an excellent Civil War film – and one of the reasons why is Washington’s excellent Oscar winning performance as Trip, an understandably bitter and angry escaped slave, who tells his white commanding officer he is not fighting for them, but for himself – for his freedom. Washington has that righteous anger he does so well, but during the course of the movie, he also evolves – becoming a natural leader among the men in the company – and his final scene, as clichéd as it is, will bring a tear to your eye. Washington was a great actor before Glory, but it confirmed he was here to stay – and remains one of his best performances.
3. He Got Game (Spike Lee, 1998)
He Got Game is one of the best sports movies ever made – perhaps because it only uses sports as a backdrop for it’s bigger story that of a complex father-son relationship at the film’s core. Washington plays Jake, a man in prison for manslaughter because he killed his wife (although it isn’t as simple as it sounds), who has been let out of jail for one week by the Governor of his state. Why? Because Jake’s son is the best high school basketball player in the country, and the Governor wants him to go to his alma mater – if Jake can get him to sign his letter of intent there, the Governor will reduce his sentence. Now, I doubt this would actually happen, but it isn’t too far off the mark – college sports is big business in the States, where everyone except the athletes make money. But Lee’s film is smart enough to know the reality behind recruitment. But mainly, he uses this as his backdrop for this father-son movie – the son hates his father, which Jake understands, but gradually, the two at least start to understand each other – and while the son may not grow to love his father, he does begin to see him as more than just a monster. Washington’s performance here is subtle – not his standard bombast, but with an undercurrent of sadness and regret. It’s one of Lee’s best films – and one of Washington’s very best performances.
2. Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001)
Washington has played a lot of heroic characters – or at least characters with a strong moral fiber – but I think he’s even better playing villains. Washington won his second Oscar for this wildly over the top performance as one of the most corrupt cops in movie history. From his opening scenes, where he takes rookie narc Ethan Hawke around L.A., we know he’s up to no good, even if Hawke doesn’t quite suspect it. From there, he only gets worse and worse, climaxing in a wonderful death scene. Washington lets it all hang out in Training Day – he goes for broke, not worrying about subtlety – and that is precisely what makes this performance so good. The movie itself is only pretty good – a violent, entertaining cop movie that doesn’t really add much to the genre, and so it needed a performance as magnetic, corrupt, funny and over the top as Washington’s to make the movie stand out. And Washington delivers.
1. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)
Washington’s performance in Malcolm X is not only his finest performance – it’s one of the finest performances in screen history. The movie follows Malcolm X from his days as a street hustler, through his prison sentence, to his conversion to Islam to becoming one of the most influential leaders of the 1960s, to his slow softening that led to his death. Washington nails the cadence of Malcolm X’s voice and mannerisms, but his performance goes well beyond mere impersonation and gets to the heart of Malcolm X – contradictions and all. Spike Lee’s film is one of the best screen biographies of all time, and a large reason for that is Washington’s excellent performance. The fact that he didn’t win an Oscar for this performance was one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history.