Summary

  • Denzel Washington’s diverse and challenging roles showcase his talent and versatility in the industry.
  • Underrated films like “Mississippi Masala” offer deeper messages on cultural divides and colonialism.
  • Washington’s performance as Malcolm X in the biopic stands out as one of the best of his career.



When rewatching Denzel Washington‘s movies, it seems there’s little he can’t do, as his most compelling films and roles are just as relevant today. While not all of his works are the most lighthearted, this doesn’t change their impact and influence. When actors have been in the industry for a long time, it speaks highly of the performer’s skill and the projects they pick when their movies get better over time. From his early start in the medical drama St. Elsewhere to his eventual forays into directing, Washington has consistently pushed himself as a creative and the boundaries of cinema.

He’s worked alongside great filmmakers and actors, but through all these works, Washington and his skill are the common denominator.


An actor doesn’t have to receive recognition through awards season to be considered great, but Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated roles are some of his best. However, it’s important to look past his highly acclaimed and high-profile work and remember that some of his overlooked performances hold up amazingly in the contemporary era. He’s worked alongside great filmmakers and actors, but through all these works, Washington and his skill are the common denominator. Though he’s stepped further into behind-the-scenes roles of director and producer in recent years, Washington still elevates every project he takes part in.

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10 Training Day (2001)

As Det. Alonzo Harris

Both actors received an Academy Award nomination for their performances, with Washington winning for Best Actor.

Washington and Ethan Hawke play off each other beautifully in Training Day, an exploration of corruption and crime in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. Both actors received an Academy Award nomination for their performances, with Washington winning for Best Actor. The win was well-earned as his character, Alonzo, is a complicated and terrifying protagonist that the audience continuously questions the intentions of until the depth of his duplicity is revealed. However, this doesn’t stop the viewer from being completely enthralled by his performance.


As Washington so often plays the hero and even the heartthrob for a period of his career, seeing him in such a truly villainous role is shocking but incredibly rewarding. Training Day goes down in history next to the great movies that take place over 24 hours, with enough twists and thrills to keep the viewer in a constant state of adrenaline. Narratives about police corruption are everywhere in TV and film today, but Training Day is a remarkable take on the sub-genre.

Training Day

Denzel Washington and Alonzo Harris star in Training Day, an action thriller that follows the two stars as Los Angeles narcotics officers. Jake Hoyt is prepping on his first major training day for a promotion as he spends spend a tense twenty-four hours across several L.A. crime-ridden neighborhoods as Jake sees the danger and horrors of the job.

Director
Antoine Fuqua

Release Date
October 5, 2001

Runtime
122 minutes


9 The Magnificant Seven (2016)

As Sam Chisholm

Washington collaborated once again with Antoine Fuqua, the director of The Equalizer series and Training Day, on the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven that brought the classic Western story to modern audiences. There are many underrated Westerns from the 2010s, as the 21st century has seen a boom in the revitalization of the genre. Bringing to life the tale that started with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Washington was the perfect choice to take on Sam Chisholm, the leader of the group and defacto protagonist of the movie.


The film features all the best elements of a strong Western. It has shootouts, mercenaries, and saloon fights but is also sure to include aspects of the action-thriller genre that have started seeping into Westerns in recent years. Much of The Magnificent Seven‘s success at the box office and its longevity are thanks to Washington’s name recognition and significant draw with audiences. However, he’s not the only reason to watch the film, as it captures the next phase of the Western movie perfectly.

The Magnificent Seven Movie Poster

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven is a new remake of the 1960 western action film that follows a group of seven warriors from different walks of life who join forces to liberate a town from an oppressive gold miner. When Bartholomew Bogue takes control of the town of Rose Creek, the beleaguered residence find themselves at his mercy. One woman seeking revenge and freedom finds U.S. Marshal Sim Chisholm, and convinces him to join their cause, as he recruits several gunmen, outlaws, and assassins willing to risk it all for a good deed.

Director
Antoine Fuqua

Release Date
September 23, 2016

Cast
Haley Bennett , ​Chris Pratt2 , Ethan Hawke , Sean Bridgers , Vinnie Jones , Matt Bomer , Byung-hun Lee , Denzel Washington , Peter Sarsgaard , Vincent D’Onofrio , Cam Gigandet

Runtime
132 minutes


8 Mississippi Masala (1991)

As Demetrius Williams

The movie grapples with the pair struggling to be accepted by their respective families and is heavily informed by political issues of displacement.

Mississippi Masala is one of Washington’s most underrated films and sees him playing a romantic lead, a role he should be recognized for more often. He stars as Demetrius, a young Black man in Mississippi who falls in love with Mina, played by Sarita Choudhury. The movie grapples with the pair struggling to be accepted by their respective families and is heavily informed by political issues of displacement. Mina’s father, Jay (Roshan Seth), was forced out of his home in Uganda, and his relationship with his Indian and Ugandan heritage informs his outlook on life and his daughter’s relationship.


Too often, interracial relationships in the media always include a white person, but this is hardly representative of real life. Movies like Mississippi Masala break out of this mold, demonstrating the cultural divides that exist in a variety of other romantic relationships. Of course, it’s a touching love story that pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer. However, there are deeper messages inside the story about racial bias and the far-reaching impacts of colonialism that make Mississippi Masala well ahead of its time.

7 Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

As Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon


Before Kenneth Branagh was making updated adaptations of Agatha Christie novels for the screen, he took on some of Shakespeare’s most well-loved plays, including Much Ado About Nothing. Washington is at his most charming in his role as Don Pedro, a would-be suitor to Beatrice (Emma Thompson) who serves as a comedic relief and a partner in crime to both Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Leonato (Richard Briers). Don Pedro is featured in the secondary conflict of the story, outside Beatrice and Benedick’s (Branagh) courtship.


Much Ado About Nothing features many cast members who would go on to be prolific performers and is a credit to Washington’s range as a performer. As in all Shakespeare comedies, each actor gets a moment to shine and flex their muscles by delivering the writer’s complex and hilarious dialogue. While there are many great contemporary movies based on Shakespeare’s works, of all the modern Shakespeare adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the most enjoyable upon rewatching because of how well it translates the work into a digestible and clear story without sacrificing any of the original dialogue.

much ado about nothing poster

Much Ado about Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is a William Shakespeare play that follows two pairs of lovers, Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick, as they navigate romance and deception. It has been translated to the big screen numerous times, including Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation starring the director, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, and Kate Beckinsale, as well as Joss Whedon’s 2013 version, which includes appearances by Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg.

6 The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

As Major Bennett Marco


It’s difficult to remake a movie as well-remembered as the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, but in the wake of the Gulf War, it quickly became the perfect time to revisit the story. Washington plays Major Bennett Marco, a veteran of the Gulf War who finds himself at the heart of a political conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Perhaps the 2004 iteration of The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t capture the atmosphere of the original, but the updates made to contend with the changes in warfare and political power in the 21st century are fascinating.


In many ways, The Manchurian Candidate is an amazing time capsule of cultural and media reactions to the post-9/11 world and the Bush administration in the early 2000s. The film also features Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber at their best, forming a central cast that makes up for any pitfalls in the story. Movies about warfare have changed a lot in the past few decades, and The Manchurian Candidate is one of the last that captured the particular paranoia surrounding technological violence and attacks.

The Manchurian Candidate

Director
jonathan demme

Release Date
July 30, 2004

Cast
Jeffrey Wright , Pablo Schreiber , Anthony Mackie , Dorian Missick , Jose Pablo Cantillo , Teddy Dunn

Runtime
130 minutes

5 Philadelphia (1993)

As Joseph “Joe” Miller


The fact that stars like Washington and Hanks took on these roles and opened the door to the conversation surrounding AIDS was monumental in 1993.

Philadelphia has received some criticism for how it portrayed HIV/AIDS and the rampant discrimination against LGBTQ+ people that persists to this day. Tom Hanks plays Andy, a lawyer who’s diagnosed with AIDS and then wrongfully fired from his law firm, while Washington plays Joe, the man who overcomes his prejudice and represents Andy in court. The film’s story was loosely inspired by the lives of many real gay men who suffered wrongful termination, but Philadelphia was one of the first high-profile projects to discuss these issues openly.


It’s interesting to compare LGBTQ+ representation in the media today with films like Philadelphia. While it’s important and exciting to see positive and joyful stories of queer life, for a long time, the only mainstream narratives about LGBTQ+ individuals revolved around pain and suffering. However, there’s room for both, and remembering the painful parts of history is vital for moving forward. The fact that stars like Washington and Hanks took on these roles and opened the door to the conversation surrounding AIDS was monumental in 1993.

Philadelphia

Director
jonathan demme

Release Date
January 14, 1994

Cast
Tom Hanks , Denzel Washington , Roberta Maxwell , Buzz Kilman , Karen Finley , Daniel Chapman , Mark Sorensen Jr. , Jeffrey Williamson

Runtime
125 Minutes


4 American Gangster (2007)

As Frank Lucas

It’s hard to imagine a movie with a more star-studded ensemble cast, but American Gangster still gives plenty of time to Washington as he plays Frank Lucas. The film is loosely based on the true story of Lucas, a prominent drug lord who capitalized on the heroin trade during the height of the Vietnam War. He’s a complex and dangerous character, but American Gangster doesn’t paint him one-dimensionally. His rise to power and eventual fall from grace is inevitable, but it’s relentlessly interesting to witness how he gets there.


American Gangster did what many contemporary throwbacks to the classic crime movie attempt to do, but Washington’s project did it earlier and better. The film was one of Washington’s highest-grossing movies at the box office, which isn’t surprising considering how it was so deeply in conversation with favorites of American cinema. Looking back on American Gangster shows the beginnings of the influx of crime and drug movies and TV shows that would come out in the following decades. However, few actors have come close to the nuanced performance Washington gives.


3 The Equalizer (2014)

As Robert McCall

It’s thanks to Washington that a revival that might have been critically panned and forgotten about was raised to the level
The Equalizer
achieved.

The Equalizer was adapted from the TV show from the 1980s, but the film quickly distinguished itself as a highlight of the action genre in the past few years. It received two sequels, and the films have had some of the highest box office numbers of Washington’s career. Though it lacks the plot and meaningful impact of some of Washington’s other movies, it’s unabashedly fun and action-packed, making it appeal to larger audiences. Additionally, it’s thanks to Washington that a revival that might have been critically panned and forgotten about was raised to the level The Equalizer achieved.


There’s an emotional core to The Equalizer, and though it’s a slim one, Washington manages to bring stakes and depth to the story while playing the action hero. It was somewhat of a departure for Washington, as he’s well known for more serious roles, but there’s something about The Equalizer that connects with audiences from the beginning. It’s easily on the same level as the best action thrillers coming out in the last ten years and should be just as well remembered.

The Equalizer (2014) - Poster - Denzel Washington With A Rifle

The Equalizer (2014)

The Equalizer is an action thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua starring Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, a former intelligence operative who lives a quiet life in Boston. When he encounters a young girl named Teri, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, threatened by violent Russian gangsters, McCall comes out of retirement to use his skills to restore justice. The film reimagines the 1980s TV series of the same name.

Director
Antoine Fuqua

Release Date
September 24, 2014

Runtime
132 Minutes


2 Fences (2016)

As Troy Maxson

Washington produced, directed, and starred in Fences, the film adaptation of the play of the same name written by August Wilson. Though not all stage productions can be easily translated to the screen, Washington went above and beyond. Not only did he create a worthy adaptation of the play, but he elevated it to the point that it felt like a new work of art. It’s largely thanks to the dual performances of Washington and his costar, Viola Davis, who starred in the 2010 revival of the play, and both received Tony awards for their work.


The pair lead the film as Troy and his wife, Rose, living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s while trying to raise their son and keep their family together. While Troy gets many of the most impactful scenes in the story, as many of the major themes revolve around masculinity, fatherhood, and racial discrimination against Black men, Rose is just as vital to the film. Troy’s actions and development wouldn’t be half as compelling without Rose’s complex feelings toward him and the desires she put aside. While it was praised at its release, Fences has only grown in critical estimation.

Fences

Fences is a period drama written by American playwright August Wilson. It was directed by Denzel Washington, who also plays Troy Maxson, a garbage collector whose checkered past prevented him from fulfilling his potential as a baseball player. The movie was well-received by both critics and viewers, with many praising Washington’s performance as the bitter sanitation worker.

Release Date
December 25, 2016

Cast
Mykelti Williamson , Stephen Henderson , Russell Hornsby , Denzel Washington , Christopher Mele , Saniyya Sidney , Viola Davis , Jovan Adepo

Runtime
139 Minutes


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1 Malcolm X (1992)

As Malcolm X

It shows how his past informed his eventual rise to prominence in the many communities that found solace in his speeches and teachings.


Spike Lee directed Washington’s landmark role, playing the revolutionary leader Malcolm X in the biographical drama encompassing his life. What sets Malcolm X apart from other biopics about political and cultural leaders is that the film doesn’t separate the man from his work. It shows how his past informed his eventual rise to prominence in the many communities that found solace in his speeches and teachings. Though Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal, many critics and audience members agree his performance was easily the best of the year, if not the decade.


Though aspects of the story are dramatized for the sake of the film, the narrative draws heavily from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. For many people both inside and outside the United States, too little is known about Malcolm X and how his views are just as influential and important as the Civil Rights leaders who were his contemporaries. However, it’s not just important to watch Malcolm X for the sake of education but because it’s a beautiful film that features an actor delivering a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X is a biographical drama directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington as the titular civil rights leader. The film chronicles Malcolm X’s life from his early days as a street hustler to his rise as a prominent and controversial Nation of Islam spokesperson, culminating in his advocacy for human rights before his assassination in 1965.

Release Date
November 18, 1992

Cast
Denzel Washington , Angela Bassett , Albert Hall , Al Freeman Jr. , Delroy Lindo

Runtime
202 minutes



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