Denzel won his very first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Ed Zwick's magnificent Civil War drama Glory, which told the story of the real-life 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first unit of the US Army made up entirely of African American soldiers. It is a powerful tale, exceedingly well-told and acted. The cast is flawless, but Denzel is the stand-out as Trip, an escaped slave itching to fight anyone who would stand in his way for the right to be free. This scene, in which he's whipped for an act that's misunderstood as insubordination, is unforgettable.
Below is the trailer for The Hurricane, the story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was imprisoned for 20 years for murder until his conviction was finally overturned. While there was controversy at the time of the movie's release over its accuracy, Washington's powerful performance can't be denied, and he was nominated for Best Actor (the lone Academy Award nomination for the movie).
Denzel finally won the Oscar for Best Actor (after being denied for his turns in Malcolm X and The Hurricane) for his menacing role as Detective Alonzo Harris, an LAPD narcotics office who's about as rotten as they come. While the actor's usually cast as a good guy, or at least someone who has some redeeming qualities, Harris is a larger-than-life villain who's willing to stoop to some grimy lows to get what he wants, but remains mesmerizing throughout. This clip, with the desperate cop spewing venom on the entire neighborhood, is R-rated for language.
In a perfect universe, Denzel would have won a Best Actor Oscar for Malcolm X. He doesn't just play the controversial, charismatic civil rights leader. He completely becomes him. Besides Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X is director Spike Lee's finest work, and Denzel is the force of nature at its center, capturing every stage of Malcom Little's journey from thief to minister to his eventual assassination in 1965. It's an epic film and an epic performance.
The thing about Denzel is, after spending several years putting in his time on TV's hospital drama St. Elsewhere, the actor came out of the gates fully formed. In one of his first major roles, he played South African activist Steve Biko, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. While still effortlessly carrying the magnetism that's true of all his performances, Washington as Biko is about as far removed from the corrupt guy in Training Day as one can get. The only thing in common – the indelible impression made by the movie star. This clip finds Washington as Biko in court arguing for basic human equality.
Even before the movie was released, this epic clash of acting titans had film buffs and commercial audiences salivating. Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington squaring off as Naval officers? Trapped on a submarine? Directed by Tony Scott? With uncredited dialogue from Quentin Tarantino? Sign us up! Classic conflict below…
Somewhat neglected upon initial release, this first-rate film noir from director Carl Franklin (who'd already made a splash with his awesome crime drama One False Move) casts Denzel as World War II vet turned private eye Easy Rawlins, who's called upon to find a mysterious, beautiful woman in late '40s Los Angeles. After years of great performances in epic dramas, it was refreshing to see the actor stretch in a moody, atmospheric genre film. Here is a great clip that captures Washington's ease and potency in the role.
The kudos for Philadelphia, and an Oscar for Best Actor, rightfully went to Tom Hanks for his devastating portrayal of an attorney who's unrightfully dismissed from his firm after contracting AIDS. But Washington is equally wonderful as an initially homophobic attorney who agrees to represent Hanks' character, and who slowly begins to understand their common bonds. Here, he presents the basics of the case to the jury.
In Courage Under Fire, Denzel provided true grit as Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling, a soldier who has difficulty coping after mistakenly ordering the destruction of an American tank unit during the Gulf War. Back at home, he's assigned to investigate the actions of a female helicopter pilot killed in combat to see if she should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. It's an emotional film from Glory filmmaker Ed Zwick, and one of the actor's finest moments. It also features a highly emaciated Matt Damon in a grueling role that saw him drop more than 40 pounds.
Reliable and charismatic as always, Denzel garnered acclaim playing career con Frank Lucas in this Ridley Scott drama. Here, he goes toe to toe with Russell Crowe's police detective Richie Roberts. The hook here is that while Roberts is fairly disheveled in his social life, Denzel's Lucas is an honorable family man on the side, providing for his wife and kids and his dear mom played by Ruby Dee (Academy Award nominated for the film). There's another hook at the end of the film between cop and convict, but we'll leave that to moviegoers to discover or rediscover. As always, it's just a pleasure to watch this master thespian/character actor/movie star at work.