Of all of Hollywood’s veteran movie stars, Denzel Washington is undeniably one of the most reliable and prolific. His projects span a huge scope of genres and audiences, with his diverse and versatile performances constantly offering different insights into the actor’s capabilities.
Washington has also directed several movies that have gone on to be major successes, even starring in a couple of the lead roles. There’s a reason that he’s known as one of the greats, and it shows every single time he gets in front of the camera, putting everything he has into every single role. And now he’s accomplished it again, scooping a nomination at the SAG Awards and Oscars for his portrayal of Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The Manchurian Candidate – 76
Much like many of Washington’s movies, The Manchurian Candidate is an intense political thriller that keeps the audience guessing at every turn. It chronicles the rise of Raymond Shaw after he saves his entire unit during the Gulf War and uses his reputation to rise up through the world of politics, as Washington’s character Ben Marco questions whether the incident ever really happened at all.
The Manchurian Candidate is one of the all-time great political thrillers, and that’s mostly due to the way that it plays mind games with its audience, constantly leaving them guessing and never revealing the entire truth until absolutely necessary.
American Gangster – 76
Released in 2007 and directed by the iconic Ridley Scott, American Gangster is a gritty crime drama that follows the exploits of Washington’s Frank Lucas, as he rises up in the business world whilst secretly running a drug channel on the side.
The film is based on a true story, with Frank Lucas being a real-life drug trafficker who operated in New York in the late 1960s. In his refined portrayal of the notorious criminal, Washington provides an unforgettable performance that truly allows the audience to lose themselves in this dark world of crime and excess.
Flight – 76
2012’s Flight is an intense thriller about airline captain Whip Whitaker, who is investigated under suspicion of flying a plane under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The film is an intriguing character study that asks plenty of interesting questions about the morality of Whip’s actions, and what drives somebody to end up in his position.
With such a complex and intricate role, you can expect an equally rich and layered performance from Washington as he skillfully navigates every aspect of the character with a careful and analytic viewpoint. He doesn’t just play the role and read the lines, but he adds a whole extra depth to Whip that makes him feel imperfectly human.
Inside Man – 76
The crime thriller is a genre in which Washington seems to thrive, and Inside Man is no different. Directed by Spike Lee, the film follows the tense relationship between criminal mastermind Dalton Russell and the unrelenting detective trying to negotiate with him, played by Washington.
What makes the film such a thrilling and intense watch is the way that all the many plot threads come together in an extremely precise yet chaotic way, never allowing time for the audience to breathe or relax. It’s for this reason that many claim Inside Man to be one of the best heist movies ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.
Courage Under Fire – 77
Courage Under Fire differs quite a bit from the films that audiences have come to expect from Washington, with a storyline that’s much less intense and much more emotional and personal. It chronicles US Officer Nat Sterling’s attempts to battle his own demons whilst analyzing a female chopper commander’s worthiness for the Medal of Honor.
Like the rest of his films, Courage Under Fire offers an extremely complex and layered character that Washington fully embraces in his tonally consistent performance. He never takes the easy options with the role, instead challenging audiences’ preconceptions of the character by openly displaying both the positives and negatives of his person in equal light.
Devil In A Blue Dress – 78
The ’90s were arguably the best era for Denzel Washington, who starred in several consistently thrilling and exciting films over the course of the decade. One of these was Devil in a Blue Dress, which follows his character ‘Easy’ as he loses his job and consequently becomes caught up in a dangerous murder case involving cops and politicians.
The film is a very by-the-book imagining of Washington’s typical style, but that isn’t a bad thing. It does everything that it needs to do to succeed as a crime thriller – interesting characters, an unpredictable plot, and high stakes to get the audience invested.
Glory – 78
In one of his earlier films, Washington portrayed Private Trip, a black soldier under the command of white military officer Robert Shaw. The film explores the relationship between Shaw and his squadron of black soldiers, detailing the opposition and ire that he faced as a result.
What makes Glory stand out from the many similar films out there is its openness and enthusiasm to explore themes of racial inequality, which hadn’t been so transparently examined in war films up to this point. Both Washington and Broderick’s performances as the central duo offer plenty of insight into contemporary attitudes towards race and racial cohesion.
Fences – 79
Fences marks not only another standout performance from Denzel Washington, but also a brilliant example of his skills behind the camera, as director. The film was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars ceremony, proving Washinton’s prowess in both areas.
The film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s classic stage play of the same name, which centers around Troy, an African American man who misses out on the opportunity to be a baseball player due to racism and prejudice within the industry.
Much Ado About Nothing – 80
One of Shakespeare’s most successful and prolific comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, was turned into a cinematic spectacle in 1993 by none other than Shakespeare-expert Kenneth Branagh himself. The film stars Branagh in the lead role, alongside Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.
Washington plays the character of Don Pedro, the Prince of Arragon and Don John’s brother. He plays an important role in the relationship between central characters Hero and Claudio, bringing them together after spending time with Claudio in the war. Although the play is mostly a comedy, Washington is given plenty of chances to flex his acting muscles and craft an intriguing and mysterious character.
The Tragedy Of Macbeth – 87
Washington’s most recent movie, and another Shakespeare adaptation at that, finds itself already at the top of this list – and by a wide margin. In Joel Coen’s minimalist retelling of the iconic Scottish play, Washington plays the tyrannical Macbeth alongside his on-screen wife Frances McDormand.
The pair both deliver fantastic performances, but the real standout of the film is Bruno Delbonnel’s beautifully haunting cinematography. Every shot feels thoughtfully crafted so as to add another layer to the story, and the result is one of the most aesthetically distinct films in recent memory.