best film:  Malcolm X (1992) from Spike Lee is a masterpiece. It is different than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in some ways (lush 70mm exteriors for Lean’s film, how much of the subject’s life is covered) but similar in others (aggressively stylistic from the auteur, tour-de-force performance from the lead). It is Spike’s next strongest film after Do the Right Thing (1989) which is a compliment.  So, this is not really a category of weakness or strength here for Denzel Washington. The problem here is the competition for Malcolm X – there really is none.  His runner-up is either Philadelphia, He Got Game or The Tragedy of Macbeth. All films that flirt with the back end of their respective years’ top ten (10) – but that is it. Needless to say, Malcolm X is crucial to Denzel’s resume.


best performance:  Malcolm X. There is no debate to be had here either. Denzel’s portrayal of Malcolm X is multiple performances in the same movie as it covers so many years in his life and different stages (criminal, prison, activist/leader).  On the flip side, there is plenty of debate to be had for Denzel’s second-best performance or third-best performance – but as for his best – it is a non-starter. Denzel’s work in the 1992 biopic ranks among the best performances by an actor in the 1990s.


Denzel in Spike’s most famous double dolly shot from 1992’s Malcolm X


stylistic innovations/traits: Denzel Washington has nineteen (19) overall archiveable films, a whopping nine (9) Oscar nominations, and two (2) wins. He was born in 1954 and hit his stride at the age of thirty (30) in the 1980s. There is not really a hot or cold period – but that stretch from 1989 to 1999 with three (3) collaborations with Spike Lee and ten (10) archiveable films overall feels like prime Denzel. Denzel is a handsome leading man (there have been stories and studies about the symmetry of his face as an example), a box office Hollywood star, and has the respect of just about every actor and many movie fans (often cited as the best or their particular favorite). He can occasionally slip inside a character (Cry Freedom and definitely sections of Malcolm X) – but by and large he is a commanding figure who plays a type (closer to a Tom Cruise or John Wayne) and his resume is not filled with examples of wide range. Denzel is different though – very rare – in that he has both screen presence like a Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood – and – he is just an immensely talented actor (like a Montgomery Clift of Philip Seymour Hoffman). Denzel’s strengths are his work with Spike Lee and the depth of that filmography with solid tier three and tier four performances (Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress). His weakness is undeniable – it is just the overall quality of films here. He suffers a similar fate to a Clark Gable or a Peter O’Toole (or Meryl Streep a little on the female side). Denzel is like a virtuoso musician who deserves to be part of a better rock band – or the sports athlete who lights up the statistics and highlights, but is never part of a team that competes for a title. Outside of his top two films with Spike Lee, Philadelphia (where Tom Hanks gives easily the best performance in the film) and The Tragedy of Macbeth – one can sum up the others by saying “Denzel is fantastic – but overall… the film is just good.”


Training Day (2001) – the first and last reason to archive the film is the performance of Denzel Washington . He is breathtaking – filled with overpowering charisma one minute and absolute acidity the next. He is manipulative and convincing – the gargantuan performance culminates in the King Kong speech which is just a marvel to witness. He is spitting fire (and literal spit) –  volcanic.


directors worked with:  Spike Lee (4), Norman Jewison (2), Edward Zwick (2), Jonathan Demme (2), Tony Scott (2), Ridley Scott (1), Robert Zemeckis (1), Joel Coen (1)


Denzel as Jake Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s artistically ambitious He Got Game. Spike and Denzel collaborated for four (4) archiveable films but it still feels like there should have been more work together.  Spike’s high cinematic aims probably did not align with Denzel’s sights on box office stardom.


top five performances:

  1. Malcolm X
  2. He Got Game
  3. Glory
  4. Training Day
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth


Denzel’s first Oscar win – from 1989’s Glory – he is proud, strong, cynical (he hawks the other soldiers at times) – the whipping scene with the tear probably wins him the Oscar


archiveable films

1984- A Soldier’s Story
1987- Cry Freedom
1989- Glory
1990- Mo’ Better Blues
1992- Malcolm X
1993- Much Ado About Nothing
1993- Philadelphia
1995- Crimson Tide
1995- Devil in a Blue Dress
1996- Courage Under Fire
1998- He Got Game
1999- The Hurricane
2001- Training Day
2004- The Manchurian Candidate
2006- Inside Man
2007- American Gangster
2010- Unstoppable
2012- Flight
2021- The Tragedy of Macbeth