Denzel Washington is one of our finest actors. Period. The man has been going strong for three decades. No matter the role or quality of the film, Denzel is always immensely watchable on screen. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Over the course of his career, he’s had some incredible runs of films. His runs are usually easy to define, as he tends to work with similar directors or in similar genres for a few years at a time.
There’s his early run of thriller/racial inequality films from 1987 to 1989 that included an Oscar win for Glory (1989). He followed that with his Spike Lee period, which included his finest performance in Malcolm X (1992). It is also one of the great travesties in Oscar history that Denzel lost the Oscar that year to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992). All Pacino had to do was say “hoo-ah!” and he beat out one of the great biographical performances in cinema history.
Then, we come to what I think is Denzel’s greatest run. Three great films in a row. Three completely unique performances that still fall in Denzel’s wheelhouse.
First, came The Hurricane (1999), the true story of Ruben “The Hurricane” Carter and his fight to overturn his wrongful murder conviction. The Hurricane and Denzel’s performance resembles Malcolm X. Maybe it’s the prison scenes or the enlightenment of a once-immature young man. Either way, Denzel once again should have probably won the Oscar that year if you look at the other five nominees. The fact that Kevin Spacey won that year for American Beauty (especially now) makes it all the worse.
He followed that up with Remember The Titans (2000), the feel-good football movie that any other football movie will have a hard time beating in our bracket. Simply, Denzel’s great in it. He was born to play the role of Coach Boone, to ask Gary Bertier “who’s your daddy?,” to give an inspirational speech at Gettysburg. I can’t imagine any other actor in that role. He has the gravitas, the necessary charm, and the weight to carry the film and make it so much more than a cheesy Disney movie about a football team overcoming adversity.
Then, we come to Training Day (2000). The final film in this exceptional 3-film run, and the film for which Denzel would win Best Actor at the Oscars. At the time, many bemoaned that Training Day wasn’t Denzel’s best film or best performance. In the years since, though, Training Day has remained iconic. Mostly, we remember those classic Denzel moments from it.
When I was in film school, I did a little acting. And every time I acted in one of my buddy’s short films, I used to warm up by performing the “King Kong” scene. It’s a BIG performance for sure, but one Denzel pulls off. It’s in the small details too. It’s in the way he smiles when he has a cigarette in his mouth, where he puts the emphasis on words I can’t write here, the way he keeps his teeth clenched when he says certain lines.
I will watch Training Day every time I run across it on TNT or USA on a Sunday afternoon.
Denzel has had an astounding career, and his presence alone is more than enough to carry Remember The Titans on to the next round. Especially against Samwise Gamgee and Rudy (1993).