The best Denzel Washington movies are the ones that bring out that smoldering inner fire that Washington controls so well as an actor. These are the movies where he plays characters that remain cool and calm on the outside, but with a deep intensity just under the surface that only explodes to surface when the time is exactly right.
Denzel Washington has been nominated for an Oscar an impressive eight times for acting roles, and another as a producer. He’s played so many iconic roles that we can’t even fit all his nominated roles on this list, like his two most recent ones in 2017's Fences and last year's Roman J. Israel, Esq. He even won a Tony Award for his performance in Fences' run as a play on Broadway in 2010.
But what are his most iconic roles? The ones for which he’ll be remembered forever? That’s what this list is all about. Denzel Washington’s passion and dedication to these roles are why he rises above so many other actors in Hollywood and commands all the attention of audiences when he is on the big screen.
10. Glory (1989)
Glory was not the first time Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award; he had been nominated a couple years previously for his role as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, but it was the first time he won an Oscar. It was also this role, as Private Trip in one of the very few all-black regiments in the Union Army during the Civil War, that launched his career towards superstardom.
This is a rare example of Denzel Washington not being the main character of a film, instead playing a supporting role to star Matthew Broderick, but Washington steals every scene he is in as a young volunteer private. Making this breakout performance with such an all-star cast that also including Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes tells you all you need to know about how commanding a presence Washington is.
9. Remember The Titans (2000)
It’s true that even by Hollywood standards, Remember The Titans takes a lot of artistic liberties in this movie that is what can only be described as “loosely” based on a true story about an African-American football coach that comes in to coach a recently integrated high school in Virginia in 1971.
Though much of the story is manipulated in a lot of different ways, Denzel Washington’s performance is outstanding. In a way, it’s the perfect role for his talents: a very tough coach with a heart of gold. It’s his smoldering intensity, again, that drives the character of Coach Herman Boone and his desire for success and equality.
8. American Gangster (2007)
Frank Lucas was one of the boldest, most brutal and most successful drug traffickers in American history. His exploits are legendary and horrifying. When Denzel Washington played him in American Gangster, audiences loved that he brought that trademark intensity along with some serious charm to the role.
Playing a gangster like Frank Lucas must be a lot of fun for an actor, especially in a period piece done as well as American Gangster, and Denzel Washington’s enthusiasm for the role comes through brilliantly. Like so many other movies, Washington shows just how powerful a leading man he is when he stands out in the terrific ensemble cast that includes other heavyweights like Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Norman Reedus.
7. He Got Game (1998)
Denzel Washington first worked with director Spike Lee early in both of their careers with 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, and that collaboration proved so fruitful that they have gone on to work together three more times, most recently in 2006’s Inside Man. The relationship has proved to be one of the most enduring of Washington’s career, only working with the late Tony Scott more often.
He Got Game is vintage Denzel. In it, he plays a convict named Jake Shuttlesworth trying to reconnect with his son, a star high school basketball player with dreams of reaching the NBA. Because his temporary parole was granted by the governor in hopes of Jake convincing his son to play for the governor’s alma mater, Jake must make the most of the moment to not only reconnect with a son that he had little connection to while in prison, but also gently nudge him towards accepting the scholarship. It’s everything you want in a Denzel Washington performance.
6. Crimson Tide (1995)
Speaking of Tony Scott, Crimson Tide was the first time Denzel Washington worked with the director, and after watching his performance as the second-in-command of a nuclear submarine, it’s easy to see why they worked together successfully four subsequent times with Man On Fire, Deja Vu, The Taking Of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable.
Denzel Washington’s chemistry with Gene Hackman, who plays the captain of the sub and the main antagonist to Washington’s character, is fantastic as well. Washington’s character is forced to make the difficult decision to relieve his commanding officer of command, while Hackman fights back, calling the move a mutiny. Their back-and-forth battle, with the backdrop of the threat of nuclear war hangs over their clash, makes for an incredible intense and excellent movie.
5. The Equalizer (2014)
Denzel Washington has shown his versatility of the years, playing every kind of role imaginable, from Civil War soldier to Shakespeare to criminal to lawyer and everything in between. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he played what we think of as a modern action hero, or anti-hero, like his character Robert McCall in The Equalizer. Sure, he had dabbled in action movies over the years, but McCall is a character in the vein of John Wick or Bryan Mills in Taken.
Denzel Washington liked the role and the movie so much that for the first time in his career, he appeared in a sequel, playing the same role once again and nailing it a second time. Of course, it’s still pure Denzel: often cool, calm, and collected while reading his books in the corner of the coffee shop until it’s time to unleash the fury of a man haunted by his past and obsessed with justice. 30 years into his career and Denzel Washington is still at the top of his game.
4. Training Day (2001)
Training Day is a controversial movie. Some critics complain that the over-the-top corruption and violence conducted by Denzel Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, is too unbelievable. They argue that despite winning his second Academy Award for the performance, the award was really just a “make-up” for Washington not winning for previous roles in Hurricane and Remember The Titans. But those critics are wrong.
Training Day is an awesome movie and Denzel Washington’s performance is not only credible and believable as an unscrupulous cop running a completely corrupt crew of equally bad cops, it is totally terrifying. He certainly deserved the Oscar nod for one of his most intense and scariest roles, pushing the boundaries of his talents and finding new ways to bring his intensity to bear in a role he born to play. It also marked the first time Washington worked with director Antoine Fuqua, someone he would work with three more times to date in some of his best roles, including The Equalizer films.
3. The Hurricane (1999)
Just like some of his other great movies, Denzel Washington plays a role based on the life of a real person in Hurricane, that of boxer and wrongly-convicted prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. How he didn’t win the Oscar for his performance is a mystery to many, losing to Kevin Spacey in a decision the Academy may regret today.
In a career noted for incredible powerful performances, this is easily among the most powerful. The movie itself has its flaws, but Denzel Washington’s performance carries it on his back and shines like few other roles he’s had over the years. Usually, Washington puts in a strong performance in powerful movies, but what makes this so iconic is that he is so good in a movie that is at best so uneven. His performance is why you watch the film.
2. Philadelphia (1993)
1993’s Philadelphia was an important movie whose message and impact has been a little bit lost to history. Denzel Washington plays a lawyer reluctant to take the case of a fellow lawyer, played by Tom Hanks in an Oscar-winning performance, who is suing his former law firm for discrimination because he believes he was fired for being gay and for having AIDS. The movie was a breakthrough in mainstream understanding and acceptance for people living with HIV and AIDS, and how they should be treated by the public.
In the early ‘90s, homophobia was still mainstream and HIV/AIDS was so misunderstood that people suffering from the disease were treated like lepers in the 19th century, shunned from society and feared by most people. Denzel Washington’s powerful performance as just one of those people, homophobic and fearful, but redeemed and enlightened by the end, actually had a real effect on the public, especially after the film received attention at the Academy Awards for Hanks and Bruce Springsteen for his powerful theme song.
1. Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington’s third collaboration with Spike Lee has proven to be his most iconic role. Playing the controversial civil rights activist Malcolm X in the movie with the same title, Denzel Washington puts in the performance of his career. Not only does he perfectly capture the essence of the charismatic, but contentious 1960s member of The Nation Of Islam, but he captures the man’s spirit as well.
It’s easy to see that the role and the film are deeply personal to both Denzel Washington and to Spike Lee, and the passion that both put into the movie is moving and incredible. The movie, like the man, was very controversial, but Washington’s incredible performance is unquestionably the defining moment of his career. He may have lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Al Pacino that year, but there is no doubt it was not only the best acting performance of 1992, it remains the best of Denzel Washington’s stellar career.
There are many other fantastic performances that didn’t make this top 10 list in movies, like Antwone Fisher, Courage Under Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, The Pelican Brief and, of course, his wonderful turn doing Shakespeare in 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. But in a career like Denzel Washington’s, it’s hard to pick out just ten.
The good news is it looks like it might get harder as he set to appear once again in a Shakespeare classic, Macbeth. We can’t wait to see what else the future holds for a man who proves over and over that he is one of the best leading men in cinema history.