While Denzel Washington made his first big screen appearance in 1981 (Carbon Copy) as the long-lost young Black son of a successful white businessman (George Segal), he is more likely remembered early in his career for portraying Dr. Philip Chandler in the television series, St. Elsewhere. Over the course of his big screen career, Washington has played some extremely memorable roles and has been nominated for eight Oscars though he has only walked away with two. Arguably, he deserved at least a few more.
His first Oscar came in 1990 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of a private in the Union Army in the historic epic, Glory (1989). His second win came in 2002 for Best Actor in a Leading Role in Training Day (2001). At least two other award winning performances were for his roles in Malcolm X (1992) and Fences (2016).
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Throughout his long and successful career, on the big screen (and off), Washington has played an array of characters including a high school football coach, airline pilot, civil rights leader, boxer, submarine officer, corrupt detective, and an airline pilot (just to name a few). He is known for an almost unprecedented passion when portraying his characters.
Now, in his mid-60s, Washington is still turning out blockbuster hits and there’s no end in sight for this Hollywood icon. He has starred in over 40 films and we dare you to choose a list that is mo’ better than the 10 below.
Who doesn’t like a feel-good sport’s inspired true story. Coach Herman Boone is hired as the new football coach in 1971 at a recently integrated T.C. Woodson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. The coach and his staff must equally find a way to work together to break down the divided players and build a team.
As a bonus to being added to this list, part of the movie was filmed in my hometown of Rome, Georgia.
Washington received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of former middleweight boxer, Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter. In 1966, Carter was arrested and wrongly convicted of a triple murder in New Jersey. After nearly 20 years in prison, his conviction is overturned after a young boy convinces his family to help exonerate Carter. Furthermore, Washington lost 60 pounds and committed to extensive training to portray this role.
Private Trip (Washington) joins the Union’s first all-black unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, amidst the American Civil War. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) leads this group of African-American soldiers who face persecution from the Confederacy if captured and must even face racism in the ranks of the Union Army. Washington would win his first Academy Award for his role in a film that details an historical moment in history.
This is the first of three films on this list that pair Washington with Director Spike Lee. This crime drama features an all-star cast including Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jodie Foster. New York City detective, Keith Frazier (Washington) must race against the clock to foil a robbery of a Manhattan bank that results in a hostage situation. The scenario is complicated as a series of unexpected events begins to unfold.
Washington teamed up with Tony Scott for his first of five films with the director. Arguably, this is the best of those five and the only one making the list. This nuclear thriller pits a submarine commander (Gene Hackman) against his second-in-command (Washington) when an order comes through to fire a pre-emptive strike against a radical Russian leader. When a partial second message is received and the two submarine officers face off over how to proceed in an action that could change the world.
In his first collaboration with Spike Lee, Washington plays a jazz musician who is internally torn from the very beginning. The film begins in 1969 with Bleek Gilliam as a young boy who has to continue his trumpet lessons despite his friends wanting to play ball. Fast forward 20 years and Bleek (Washington) is in a jazz band quintet with Wesley Snipes, with Spike Lee playing the band’s manager. Through a series of events and bad decisions, Bleek is on the cusp of destroying his relationships with both his bandmates and that of the women in his life.
Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) crash lands a plane that has suffered a mechanical failure. Despite saving most all of the plane’s passengers, Whitaker is confronted with a blood test obtained while he is hospitalized that indicates he had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the accident. With the threat of criminal charges looming, Whitaker must come to grips with his addiction while keeping his composure. This film garnered Washington another Oscar nomination.
Directed by and starring Washington, this film would be nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year (2017) and Washington would be nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. However, Viola Davis would receive an Oscar for her performance in the film. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the same name. It explores the life of Troy Maxson (Washington), who is a sanitation worker in Pittsburgh, and his struggles throughout his life including dealing with his brother that was injured during World War II, his bitterness over not being able to play professional baseball and the fences that he puts up in his life that affect those around him.
In the film that would win Washington his second Academy Award, he plays a corrupt Los Angeles detective. Rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is partnered with veteran officer Alonzo Harris (Washington) who has highly questionable methods that begin to unfold during his first day on the job.
Washington teams up with Spike Lee again for this biographical drama that arguably should have won the actor an Oscar for his portrayal of the controversial activist. The film chronicles Malcolm Little’s (his birth name) life from a childhood shaped by racism, time spent as a criminal, imprisonment, conversion to Islam, Black Nationalist leader, and his subsequent assassination in 1965.
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