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There’s Never Been a Movie Star Like Denzel Washington

On the eve of possibly another Oscar nomination, it’s worth appreciating how singular his career has been — and the ways we take his greatness for granted

In November 2020, New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott published a list, “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far),” which I imagine a lot of people assumed would be topped by Daniel Day-Lewis. Or maybe Tilda Swinton or Cate Blanchett. You know, the sort of actors who seem larger than life, their bravura turns a towering testament to the brilliance of their craft. Instead, Dargis and Scott went with Denzel Washington, and apparently it wasn’t a hard choice for them. “We wrangled and argued about every other slot on the list,” Scott wrote, “but there was no hesitation or debate about this one.”

Few would argue that Washington isn’t a great and beloved actor. He’s won two Oscars, and he could certainly have won two others if the Academy had been paying closer attention to his work in Malcolm X and Fences. (As my colleague Zaron Burnett III pointed out recently, “His nine Oscar nominations make him the most-nominated Black actor ever recognized by the Academy.”) But, at least anecdotally, Washington’s selection seemed to surprise people. Sure, he’s given the kind of bravura performances that blow people away — think of him in Training Day, strutting and swaggering — but he’s not the sort of flamboyantly magnificent actor who tops these kinds of lists. The fact that Washington wasn’t an obvious No. 1 suggests that, all these years into a terrific career, he might still somehow be underrated.

On Tuesday, Washington may receive his ninth acting nomination, for The Tragedy of Macbeth. (He’s also been nominated for Best Picture for producing Fences.) Playing the ambitious, murderous Scottish general, Washington is predictably excellent, and even while watching the film a few months ago, I thought about how much I take that excellence for granted. There are good Denzel Washington movies and bad Denzel Washington movies, but there are very rarely bad Denzel Washington performances. (However, that compliment can cut both ways: As Scott acknowledged in the Times piece, “Maybe one measure of his mightiness is how consistently he’s better than the movies he’s in. Amid the extensive run of excellent work … there are [only] a few monuments that show this towering talent in full.”) 

But perhaps another reason his excellence remains tough to grasp is that, in the blockbuster era, he is perhaps the only performer who can legitimately be described as both a great actor and a bona-fide movie star. People will go to his films in droves because he’s starring in them, but he also consistently earns the kind of kudos reserved for our finest thespians. He’s not Daniel Day-Lewis or Will Smith. In terms of Oscar consistency and box-office standing, he probably comes closest to repeat-nominees Bradley Cooper or Leonardo DiCaprio, but neither of them have his stature or gravitas. (If he has any equal, maybe it’s Meryl Streep.) 

At 67, he’s been a Hollywood mainstay since the mid-1990s, never really experiencing a fallow period during that time. And yet, he’s not the traditional superstar, by which I mean he’s never been part of a full-fledged blockbuster. His biggest moneymaker? American Gangster, from 2007, which was only the 19th-highest-grossing film of that year. Unless I’ve missed one, he’s had exactly one movie end up in its year’s Top 10, and that was The Pelican Brief, where you could argue that Julia Roberts was more of the draw than he was. (In fact, Washington himself would argue that, calling his decision to be in the film a “no-brainer. I got to ride the Julia machine. Julia’s a moneymaking machine.”) He’s been a movie star for decades without ever getting too big. He’s never had a “peak,” but he’s also never had a fall from grace. He is remarkably, perhaps somewhat unsexily, consistent.

He’s talked often about some of the troubled guys he grew up with, friends who went to prison. His parents split up when he was a teenager. “My father was a preacher — a kind, spiritual person,” Washington said in 2010. “My mother owned a beauty shop. I grew up working in New York City barbershops and in church, which are where you find the best storytellers. … I am sure the divorce affected me, but it was nothing special. I’d say I had a normal childhood.”

Wanting to prevent her son from turning out like his jailbird buddies, Washington’s mom enrolled him in private school in ninth grade, a decision he later credited with putting him on the right path. Still, when he went to college, where he was on the basketball team, he was trying to figure out a direction. “I was actually pre-med,” Washington recalled. “I thought, ‘You go to college, be a doctor.’ Then, I went into political science, pre-law. …  I found out I wasn’t doctor material, I found out I wasn’t lawyer material, then I started studying journalism.” Eventually, he landed on acting, his second collegiate part being the lead in another Shakespeare work, Othello. Maybe this was something he could do for a living. 

Before long, he was working in legitimate theater, then the acclaimed NBC drama St. Elsewhere. “I remember early on my agent talked to me about not getting caught up in television,” Washington told Entertainment Weekly. “She convinced me not to do The Jeffersons, which I’d read for. But St. Elsewhere had so many characters, you could get sort of lost in the sauce and be able to sneak out and do films. And it was a great show.” 

One of those films he did during time off of St. Elsewhere was 1987’s Cry Freedom, in which he played Steve Biko, the South African activist who was murdered in 1977 at the age of 30 for speaking out against apartheid. The role earned him his first Oscar nomination — he’d win Best Supporting Actor two years later for Glory, where he played a former slave who fights for the Union in the Civil War. The scene that everyone remembers — and the scene that probably clinched the Academy Award — is the one in which his character Trip is ordered to be whipped by his commanding officer, played by Matthew Broderick. Washington wasn’t supposed to cry in the scene, but it happened spontaneously. 

“I think it’s a very interesting thing that you’re seeing there: You’re seeing his rage, but you’re also seeing his humiliation,” Glory director Ed Zwick later said. “Another actor, as he felt that happening, he might not allow that. And yet, [Washington] knew that both of those things were real and were organic, and were happening. He let that happen, and I saw it happening as I was behind the camera and I just kept shooting.”

“I went out there with an arrogance,” Washington said in his EW interview about his preparation for that moment. “I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength — it all came out of this meditation. It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, ‘Don’t let him win.’”

In his mid-30s, an Oscar-winner making the leap to leading man, Washington hooked up with smart, distinctive filmmakers like Spike Lee and Mira Nair. He did big John Grisham adaptations (The Pelican Brief) and socially conscious dramas (Philadelphia). And by the mid-1990s, he was getting top billing, taking on Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide and playing Easy Rawlins in the big-screen treatment of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. But he rarely was part of massive hits, and he tended not to be one of those A-listers with a big public presence, unlike superstars such as Tom Cruise or Will Smith. “I’m not at the events, hugging and kissing. It’s not my style,” Washington said. “Sidney Poitier once told me, ‘If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend.’ The point is, to have longevity as an actor in movies you have to have some mystery. Anyway, I’m not interested in all that. I’ll do an interview because I’m selling a movie. I’m not selling me. I don’t go to Hollywood events unless I can’t help it.”

It’s rare for him not to appear in at least one movie per year — and if he doesn’t, the odds are good he was in two the previous year, or the following year. You can point to some iffy choices — few would defend The Siege, The Bone Collector, Out of Time, Safe House or 2 Guns — but as Scott and Dargis noted, even when the films were marginal, he was interesting. In a time of rampant franchises, Washington is a unicorn in that you mostly see his movies because of him, not the intellectual property. (Before 2018’s The Equalizer 2, he’d never made a sequel, although he’d done remakes with The Manchurian Candidate, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Magnificent Seven.) 

He’s a workhorse and a grinder, and because he tends to play blue-collar, low-key characters, his résumé isn’t as flashy as some of his peers’. Washington has been in rom-coms, Westerns, thrillers, Shakespearean comedies and character dramas, but his bread and butter has been solid-if-not-spectacular action films, where he’s almost certainly the good guy. A major reason he surprised audiences with Training Day, which won him his second Oscar, was that it was one of the only times he’s played the villain, a corrupt cop named Harris who torments his rookie partner (Ethan Hawke). Tom Hanks occasionally portrays the heavy, too, but Washington’s transformation was more fearsome, more seductive. “I just didn’t get asked to do those kinds of things … With Training Day I was like, man, bad guys are fun. I never knew that. Never discovered that,” he told the L.A. Times. “[Harris] gets away with anything. He’s a sociopath who wants to dominate all the time. But he’s having a blast. It was liberating.” 

Washington’s choices as an actor — and, this century, as a director — can be a little staid. He can be susceptible to the inspirational, which might be a byproduct of his Christian faith. “When I was a child, I hated church,” he said last month. “I didn’t want to be there. It was a duty. I didn’t want anything to do with God — it meant I had to sit in a room all day and listen to my father!” But as he got older, he found himself drawn back to Christianity, adding, “I am always trying to find a spiritual message in the journey of almost every character I play.” That was true of even Training Day: “The first thing I wrote on my script,” he said, “was ‘The wages of sin are death.’”

But his consistency is even more impressive considering no Black star of the last 30 years has had his critical and commercial track record. In 2002, Playboy asked him, “Did you ever lose out on a role because of your race?” Washington’s response: “No, and in fact I have turned down some very good roles that then went to white actors.” (Earlier in the conversation, when discussing the challenges Black actors face in being cast, Washington commented, “I’m not in a position to talk about the lack of opportunities for Black actors, because no one has gotten more opportunities than I have. One might argue that it’s a more difficult climb. And as hard as it can be for Black actors, it’s far more difficult for African-American women.”) That said, he’s not blind to the racism that exists in his industry. Even now, as Washington plays an older Macbeth alongside Frances McDormand, and is directed by Joel Coen, this longtime lover of Shakespeare recognizes how much Hollywood has changed since the start of his career. “I could be the buddy of Macbeth in a film,” he said about those early days, “but nobody was asking anybody who looked like me to play Macbeth.”  

In a few ways, Washington has had to navigate different worlds — he’s a Black actor in a still very white business, and he’s a serious actor who’s also a star. When he signs up for something like The Tragedy of Macbeth, the press doesn’t treat it like some daring change of pace. Likewise, when he does a pure popcorn flick such as The Equalizer, there’s no gnashing of teeth that he’s somehow “sold out” — it’s just him flexing his commercial muscle, and doing it with a little finesse. When he shows up on talk shows, audiences adore him — and the few times he’s had to deal with minor “controversies” in recent times, he’s handled them pretty perfectly. Plus, at a time when #OscarsSoWhite still haunts the Academy, he’s the one actor of color you can feel confident won’t be snubbed come awards season. After all, he’s Denzel Washington — which may be a way of saying that, despite working in racist Hollywood, he’s so transcendally good that his talent simply cannot be overlooked.

The effortlessness of what Washington does makes it easy to undervalue him. He’s refused to do only one type of film — or be only one kind of star — and it’s heartening to hear that he remains creatively curious. At the end of last year, he mentioned that, after collaborating with Joel Coen, he wants to start reaching out to other accomplished filmmakers he admires, listing Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron on his wishlist. (“You know, it was actually my son, John David, [who] was saying, ‘With certain directors you should just call, dad,’” Washington said recently. “And I was like, ‘Like who?’ He said, ‘Well, Paul Thomas Anderson.’ So I called him!”) Washington’s long association with Spike Lee notwithstanding, he’s not someone who often works with auteurs, which might only bolster a reputation that’s already sterling. 

Not that it matters. His legacy is secure, no matter what other films he makes or whether he gets an Oscar nomination Tuesday. Greatness tends to announce itself. Michael Jordan. Daniel Day-Lewis. Kanye West. It’s often loud and imposing. But although Denzel Washington is definitely a presence, he’s a far subtler master. It’s the heft of his persona, which is often righteous and volcanic, the way he strides across a screen, owning it before he even speaks. (Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles John David Washington faces as his father’s son is that his gait is reminiscent of dad’s — it feels like he’s ripping off the old man’s trademark walk simply by moving.) Yet it never comes across as overblown or shtick-y. He is compelling now in exactly the same way he was compelling back in the 1980s. He’s grown older but gotten no less interesting along the way.

Did The New York Times get it right? I might slot a few actors higher than Washington this century — such choices are arbitrary and personal. But what the Times’ list got absolutely correct was that it reminded readers that there’s never been a movie star quite like him. He’s projected a noble, vulnerable toughness on screen, embodying bulletproof cool without becoming a cliché. At a time when fictional cinematic heroes are often complicated figures, he’s given us good guys who are genuinely inspiring. Plus, Washington exists outside the realm of Marvel and Star Wars, remaining one of the few reliably grownup figures at the multiplex. (In other words, he hasn’t aged into a massive disappointment like Liam Neeson.) He still takes risks, yet knows there’s a sizable audience that will follow him no matter what. He lives in the best of all worlds, occupied by him alone.

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Denzel Washington plays another villain, and his best one since back in Training Day. His Macbeth is a proud, haunted man who will be laid low by his own thirst for power, his belief that he’s owed the kingdom. There’s no flair to the performance, by which I mean Washington seems as elemental as the permanent gray skies above his character’s head. His Macbeth is towering but shrinking in front of our eyes. It’s so good you don’t notice — Washington has taught us how to ignore him and focus instead on the man he’s bringing to life. One might say he’s done the job too well in his career. As magnificent as he’s been, we still don’t quite see him — still don’t quite understand that one of the all-time greats walks amongst us.