Denzel Washington's best performances, ranked

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Derek Lawrence
·8 min read
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Everett Collection (3)

He got game.

There's no movie star quite like Denzel Washington. The career of the two-time Oscar winner (and nine-time nominee) has now spanned 40 years, and he's managed to seamlessly navigate an ever-changing Hollywood landscape, bouncing back-and-forth between prestige dramas and popcorn action vehicles. But, no matter the genre, every Denzel movie is an event (not to mention that every mom loves him).

So, as the 66-year-old actor returns with his first film in almost three years, The Little Things (premiering Friday in theaters and on HBO Max), it's the perfect time to have the great debate about the magnificent 10 performances of a legendary run.

And yes, King Kong ain't got s--- on these rankings.

10. <em>Man on Fire</em> (2004)

Some respect needed to be paid to Denzel's impeccable track record in B-level action thrillers, especially his collaborations with the late great Tony Scott. The actor's turn as dedicated bodyguard John Creasy gets the nod for many reasons. While it's technically one of his quieter performances, he lets his badassery do the talking. But what really separates Man on Fire from the Unstoppables or Safe Houses is his adorable and heartbreaking chemistry with a then-10-year-old Dakota Fanning. Plus, bonus points for quintessential action lines like when Creasy is asked what he's going to do to Pita's (Fanning) kidnappers: “What I do best: I’m gonna kill 'em.” Truly on fire.

9. <em>American Gangster</em> (2007)

At the 2008 Oscars, no one was going to beat Daniel Day-Lewis and his iconic turn in There Will Be Blood, but it's still shocking that Denzel didn't at least get a nomination for starring as infamous drug kingpin Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott's crime biopic. Denzel is all business as Lucas, highlighted by a chilling sequence where he's giving a speech in a diner, only to then spot a rival (Idris Elba) outside, walk up to him, fire a shot through his head in broad daylight, walk back, sit-down, and calmly ask his shocked family, "So, what was I saying?" Gangster, indeed.

Related: Review — American Gangster

8. <em>He Got Game</em> (1998)

Denzel and Spike Lee's basketball drama is far from your classic inspirational sports movie, but its legacy has only grown over the years since its release. Alongside the unforgettable name that is Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), much of the longevity is thanks to Denzel's Jake Shuttlesworth, the poster boy for overbearing, pushy sports dads, and one of the actor's most flawed characters. The film builds to a climactic game of one-on-one between father and son that Jesus was supposed to win 11 to 0. That is until Denzel decided to go off script without telling anyone, surprising Allen, a rookie actor and pro basketball player, by playing for real and getting a few points of his own. We told you that he got game.

Related: Spike Lee plays He Got Game

7. <em>Flight</em> (2012)

Years before Tom Hanks took flight as Sully, Denzel beat him to the air as alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker, who finds himself trying to conceal his addiction following a miraculous crash landing. Often actors play into their worst tendencies when portraying a drunkard, going way too big, but, like Whip's plane, Denzel manages to ground his performance, whether when turning a plane upside-down or finally coming clean to himself — and the world.

Related: The best scene (and the worst) of 2012

6. <em>Fences</em> (2016)

Denzel had a lot of things working to his advantage on this adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, considering he was serving as director and previously took home a Tony for starring on Broadway as unfaithful husband, stern father, and 1950s garbage collector Troy Maxson. Like the recent Wilson film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which Denzel produced, it's impossible not to see the stage origins, and yet, the confined space and setting also allows Denzel to have a hurricane of powerful, intimate showdowns with Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers), Russell Hornsby (The Hate U Give), and Viola Davis, his Broadway partner and Oscar-winner for Fences.

Related: Denzel Washington on getting the cast back together for Fences

5. <em>The Hurricane</em> (1999)

Speaking of hurricanes, Denzel closed out the 20th century with a knockout performance as Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter, a boxer fighting for his freedom after being wrongfully imprisoned for murder. Denzel is tasked with playing multiple versions of the real Carter (and inspiration for Bob Dylan's protest song "Hurricane"), from a troubled soldier returning home to a young man at the top of his sport to an angry and volatile prisoner to a thankful, and freed man. It's hard not to wonder if the biggest hit The Hurricane took was soon being followed by Will Smith's much-bigger and louder Ali.

Related: Denzel Washington challenges The Hurricane's R rating

4. <em>Glory</em> (1989)

Just one year after wrapping up his six-season run on the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel gained big screen glory as Private Silas Trip, the most outspoken member of the Union Army's all-Black regiment. Despite a few big verbal confrontations with fellow future legends Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, Denzel doesn't speak a word in Glory's most memorable scene, as Trip is punished with a flogging. He never blinks, staring right through Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick), and eventually having one tear run down his otherwise stoic face. The performance, only his seventh film credit, earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Related: Glory director Ed Zwick explains how he worked to avoid 'a white savior narrative'

3. <em>Philadelphia</em> (1993)

The biggest objection to this legal drama is that Denzel didn't get nearly as much love as costar Tom Hanks, who won the first of his back-to-back Oscars. Hanks has the juicier part as Andrew Beckett, a lawyer dying of AIDS and suing his old firm for dismissing him because he's gay, but Denzel's supporting turn as Beckett's initially homophobic counsel Joe Miller is just as important, painfully showcasing the uninformed views and beliefs of the early AIDS-era. While Denzel is right at home in the courtroom, he especially stands out while riding an emotional rollercoaster during a pharmacy run-in. At first, Joe is beaming with pride when his work is recognized by a Black law student, only to be in shock when the young man hits on him. He's in such disbelief that he literally does a full 360-turn, before publicly snapping on his admirer. The scenes manages to be both hard to watch and impossible not to watch at the same time.

Related: Gay love stories on film: Philadelphia

2. <em>Training Day</em> (2001)

This isn't a film that you win an Oscar for. Especially when competing against Will Smith in a Muhammad Ali biopic, Russell Crowe in Best Picture victor A Beautiful Mind, and Sean Penn in usual awards catnip like I Am Sam. But that's the power of Denzel. What could have just been an entertaining, by the numbers cop drama, he elevates to a history-making level. From the first minute we're introduced to corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris, Denzel is electrifying, and that magnetism only grows as he and his new recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) make their rounds through the gritty streets of Los Angeles. But it's the final 10 minutes, when his badge is literally and figuratively stripped from Alonzo, that Denzel unloads his Oscar-winning sequence. The defiant tirade has so many quotable lines (King Kong indeed doesn't have s--- on him), but, as Alonzo comes to grips with this being the end for him, Denzel brings it home with a cigarette, a hop, an evil chuckle, and a hoarse and resigned delivery of "What a motherf---in' day." And what a motherf---in' performance.

Related: The best and most quotable buddy cop movies

1. <em>Malcolm X</em> (1992)

There's been plenty of infamous Oscar injustices over the years (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, really?!), and that tradition will surely live on forever, which is also how long it will take us to get over Denzel as Malcolm X being snubbed in favor of what can only be described as a career-achievement win for Scent of a Woman's Al Pacino. No pair was better suited for this 200-minute epic than Denzel and frequent collaborator Spike Lee, who, unsurprisingly, doesn't turn in a traditional biopic. Whereas Kingsley Ben-Adir's version of the revolutionary activist in 2020's One Night in Miami is much more subdued, Denzel blends that nature with a fire and force, whether in his private moments with Malcolm's wife Betty (Angela Bassett) or in fervent speeches that showed why so many were drawn to the towering figure. "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock," he famously declares in one such instance. "Plymouth Rock landed on us!" Well, it was easy to land on Malcolm X as the greatest performance from one of our greatest actors.

Related: Denzel Washington reflects on his past

Honorable mention: Remember the Titans, Inside Man, and Roman J. Israel, Esq., which surely someone in the world has seen.

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