Denzel Washington: Malcolm X And 4 Other Movie Performances That Deserved An Oscar

Denzel Washington The Tragedy of Macbeth trailer screenshot
(Image credit: A24)

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has set the bar as far as box office power, acting prowess, and leading man status. Washington has been feeding fans nothing but stellar performances and iconic lines for decades with films like Much Ado About Nothing, Remember the Titans, and Devil in a Blue Dress. He’s your favorite actor’s favorite actor, counting his A Journal for Jordan lead Michael B. Jordan and fellow two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks as admirers. 

You would think Denzel Washington would have a mantle full of Academy Awards. That’s far from the truth, though, as The Tragedy of Macbeth star scored only two wins out of a record-setting nine Oscar nominations (the most for any Black actor) – one for Best Supporting Actor for 1988’s Glory, and one for Best Actor for 2001's Training Day. But two wins doesn’t mean Washington’s other performances aren’t Oscar-worthy. So, here are just a few of the Denzel Washington movies with performances worthy of an Academy Award.

Screenshot of Denzel Washingon as Malcolm X in Malcolm X

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Malcolm X (1992)

After his first Oscar win for Glory, Denzel Washington gained more notoriety for his turn as the civil rights icon Malcolm X in the biopic of the same name. Tackling such an important cultural figure showed a different side to the Equalizer star.

The actor hit definite leading man status as he inhabited Malcolm X’s militant and transformational attitude, shifting from local hood to an Islamic faithful during the film’s first half. In doing so, he allowed viewers to see all the layers of the civil rights leader as the Oscar winner mastered the mannerisms and emotional gravitas, especially when reciting one of  Malcolm X's powerful speeches. 

The performer and character melded, which helped tackle the evolving dynamic and relationship between Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz. Washington and his onscreen wife, Angela Bassett, played well off each other during those scenes.

But, it was the biopic’s tragic finale where Denzel Washington shone best in capturing Malcolm X's possible fear at the moment. This led to Washington scoring his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, he lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. Many critics and cinephiles have called Washington’s loss one of the biggest blunders in Academy Awards history.

Screenshot of Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter in The Hurricane

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The Hurricane (1999)

Like his role in Malcolm X, The Hurricane allowed Denzel Washington to tackle another life story, but this time, instead of tragedy, viewers got to see a man triumph over adversity. In the 1999 biopic, Washington got the chance to play rising boxer-turned-criminal justice advocate Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

The two-time Oscar winner again became a vessel, this time for Carter’s story of triumph over a wrongful conviction. Washington tapped into the emotional core of the story as Carter shifted from a rising boxer to a convicted felon, which allowed the thespian to highlight Carter’s grace and importance throughout his decades in prison. 

But, it was the relationship between Rubin Carter and Lesra Martin that brought out the best in him. Denzel Washington's interactions and dynamic with co-star Vicellous Reon Shannon allowed viewers to see the unlikely bond formed between the jaded convict and the idealistic young man, showing Carter’s softer side. Their relationship culminated in the former boxer’s release, with Washington uttering one of his most iconic lines: “Hate got me into this place, love got me out.” 

The powerful finale scored Denzel Washington his second nomination for Best Actor. But, like the earlier role, Washington ended up losing to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. Despite the controversy surrounding the film’s accuracy, the role is still considered one of Washington’s best performances.

Screenshot of Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in Fences

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Fences (2016)

While playing real-life figures appeared to be his sweet spot, Denzel Washington went back to his theater roots by reprising one of his most acclaimed roles. Washington took on bitter sanitation worker Troy Maxson in a stage-to-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences.

The two-time Oscar winner managed to take an unlovable character and make him tolerable. Troy Maxson came off as an abusive and self-indulgent man hardened by life. Denzel Washington channeled all Maxson’s layers and experiences and created a complicated man in the slice-of-life drama, allowing audiences to sympathize with his character’s disposition about his crushed dreams.

But, it’s the relationships around Troy where the acting titan truly shined. As an antagonist-like figure, Denzel Washington struck the right balance of vulnerability and aggression leading to some complex scenes. Troy’s tough love and jealousy played off his long-suffering wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis), and Cory’s (played Jovan Adepo) evolving disdain for his father, as well as Russell Hornsby's Lyons and Mykelti Williamson's Gabriel. 

All these dynamics worked well, as the film scored four Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Denzel Washington and Best Supporting Actress for Viola Davis. While Davis won her award, Washington lost to Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea.

Screenshot of Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttleworth in He Got Game

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures)

He Got Game (1998)

Before tackling the story of Rubin Carter, Denzel Washington took on the role of a convicted felon. The two-time Oscar winner played absentee father and convict Jake Shuttleworth in Spike Lee’s sports drama, He Got Game.

As Jake, the actor played into the fractured father-son dynamic as he tried making amends with his children to reduce his sentence. Eventually, the story shifted as  Washington channeled Jake's grit and vulnerability to redeem himself with his son and daughter. The repair of Jake and Jesus Shuttleworth’s broken relationship was captured through Washington's onscreen pairing with former NBA star, Ray Allen. The unlikely pairing captured the uneasy tension between father and son, as Allen channeled Jesus’s anger over his mother’s death. Eventually, the Shuttleworth men tried mending their relationship, culminating in their pick-up game towards the end.

Playing an absentee father was one of the Hollywood star’s most understated performances. The role allowed Denzel Washington to tap into his inner New Yorker. Despite receiving praise from critics and audiences, Washington failed to secure a Best Actor Oscar nomination. 

Screenshot of Denzel Washington as Pvt. Peterson in A Soldier's Story

(Image credit: Columbia)

A Soldier's Story (1984)

Denzel Washington has been giving Oscar-worthy performances since bursting on the scene. Before seizing his first Oscar for Glory, Washington caught critics’ and moviegoers’ attention as Private Peterson in the stage-to-screen adaptation A Soldier’s Story.

As one of Washington’s earlier film roles, he channeled the young soldier’s dual life as a meek officer and a murderous avenger. Like many of his follow-up roles, Washington managed the officer’s multiple layers to show all his emotions by digging deep in the private’s psyche to play on the complex dynamics – shy and stoic while hiding a dark underbelly.

Like many of his roles, it was his onscreen relationships where Washington shone the best. The record-breaking Oscar nominee displayed great chemistry with co-stars like Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier, and Art Evans. It made the brotherhood between the soldiers more believable. But, Denzel Washington shone brightest in his scenes with co-star Adolph Caesar. Understanding Pvt. Peterson and Sgt. Waters’ push-and-pull relationship was best illustrated in the scene where Peterson called out Waters before the sergeant's death. Their cat-dog dynamic leaned into unspoken issues like hierarchy, segregation, racism, and superiority complexes.

The cast and film received acclaim, garnering three Oscar nominations. While co-star Adolph Caesar received a Best Supporting Actor nom, Denzel Washington went unrecognized. This early performance showed the potential millions would get to know over the next four decades.

The above performances proved Denzel Washington has been delivering Oscar-worthy roles for decades. Having only two wins hasn’t stopped Washington's Hollywood career, as evidenced by his upcoming movies in 2022 and beyond, including his exciting update about The Equalizer 3. Hopefully, his nod for The Tragedy of Macbeth will see him take the Oscar stage this time, even as he faces off against Will Smith again. To see who else Washington is competing against, just take a look at our list of 2022 Oscar nominees.

Adreon Patterson
News Writer

A boy from Greenwood, South Carolina. CinemaBlend Contributor. An animation enthusiast (anime, US and international films, television). Freelance writer, designer and artist. Lover of music (US and international).