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Getting to Know: Denzel Washington

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Forty-five years have passed since Denzel Washington made his screen debut. Since then, he has received 10 Oscar nominations and won the awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Cinema Paradiso looks back on the career of a man who hasn't just made a living. He's made a difference.

In 2020, The New York Times declared Denzel Washington to be the greatest actor of the 21st century. Film historian Donald Bogle went further in stating that Washington had reconfigured 'the concept of classic movie stardom' having 'liberated Black images from the shackles of ghettocentricity and neominstrelsy'. Not bad for someone who once responded to an inquiry about how he became an actor with the words, 'I tripped and fell into it.'

The Son of a Preacher Man

Coming between sister Lorice and brother David, Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. was born on 28 December 1954. Mother Lennis (who was known as 'Lynne') hailed from Georgia, but had been reared in Harlem, while father Denzel had come north to Mount Vernon, New York from Dillwyn in Buckingham County, Virginia. In addition to being a Pentecostal minister, he also worked for the New York City Water Department and held down a part-time post at the local S. Klein department store.

A former gospel singer, Lynne ran her own beauty parlour. But money was scarce and the nine year-old Denzel had to do a paper round to bring in a few extra dollars. However, he much preferred working at the nearby barbershop, where he 'used to clean up, hustle, whisk-broom people off, take their clothes to the cleaner's. Everybody looked like a dollar bill to me.' Looking back, he enjoyed being around so many father figures, even though he knew most of them were 'professional liars'. But, as he told one interviewer, 'I learned how to act.'

A still from The Emperor Jones (1933)
A still from The Emperor Jones (1933)

While attending Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in the mid-1960s, the young Denzel had taken to the stage for the first time, when he and Wayne Bridges (the father of rapper Ludacris) bought toy guitars and Beatle wigs to perform 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' in a talent show at the Boys Club. Washington has always been grateful to this organisation for keeping him out of trouble and remains a generous benefactor to this day.

When he was 14, Washington's parents divorced and he lost touch with his father for a few years. Lynne was anxious to prevent him from falling in with a bad crowd and sent him to the Oakland Military Academy boarding school in New Windsor. He and Lorice found it difficult to acclimatise to their new surroundings. But, as Washington later revealed, 'That decision changed my life because I wouldn't have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.'

On leaving Oakland, Washington spent the early 1970s at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida. He had ambitions to become a doctor, but knew from his first classes that he had made the wrong choice. Instead, he decided to major in Journalism at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he played on the basketball team. During a break in his studies, Washington found himself considering a career in the army. However, he opted to work for the sanitation department emptying bins before taking a job as creative arts director at Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut.

Here, Washington was talked into participating in a variety show and so enjoyed acting in a sketch for the kids that he signed up to a drama class on returning to Fordham. He later joked, 'I just took a class in acting because they said you can get an easy and good grade in it and I just liked getting good grades easily.' But he was soon hanging at the Lincoln Center campus and landing leads in productions of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and William Shakespeare's Othello. José Ferrer, who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Michael Gordon's Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), predicted great things for him.

Tutor Robinson Stone compared him to Paul Robeson, one of the most important figures in African American entertainment. Cinema Paradiso users can discover his talent in such pictures as Kenneth MacPherson's Borderline (1930), Dudley Murphy's The Emperor Jones (1933), James Whale's Show Boat (1936), Thornton Freeland's Jericho (1937), Pen Tennyson's The Proud Valley (1940) and Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan (1942).

A still from Shaft (1971)
A still from Shaft (1971)

Although he had seen classics like Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933) and Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939), Washington was not much of a film fan at this time, perhaps because his father had insisted on his children watching biblical sagas like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961). He had recognised the characters in titles like Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971) and Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Superfly (1972) and felt he had more in common with Jim Brown, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor than Sidney Poitier. As he learned his craft, however, Washington started to admire Method actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and came to see acting as being similar to investigative reporting, as he had to search out his characters.

Fish Sticks in St Elsewhere

In 1976, Washington spent the summer in St Mary's City, Maryland in a stock production of Wings of the Morning, which centred on Mathias De Sousa, the 17th-century indentured servant who became the first Black man to sit on a legislative body in colonial North America. The following year, having graduated from Fordham, Washington received a scholarship to study at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He stayed for a year, with one tutor recalling that he often missed classes because he was only interested in picking up the technical basics and learning how to apply them to his natural instincts.

Around this time, Washington appeared before a camera for the first time, in commercials for Mrs Paul's fish sticks, Burger King and Fruit of the Loom underwear (although he thinks he might have been rejected for the latter). More significantly, he made his TV-movie bow as Robert Eldridge, the childhood sweetheart of Wilma Rudolph (Shirley Jo Finney) in Bud Greenspan's biopic of the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. On a personal level, however, Wilma (1977) meant much more to Washington, as he met future wife, Pauletta Pearson, who played sprinter Mae Faggs.

The couple returned to Mount Vernon, where Washington joined the cast off Joseph Papp's 1979 Public Theatre production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus (which was filmed in modern dress by Ralph Fiennes in 2011). He also played Malcolm Shabazz (aka Malcolm X) in Laurence Holder's When the Chicken Comes Home to Roost at the National Federal Theatre. Also in 1981, he made his feature bow as Roger Porter (opposite George Segal, as his long-lost father) in Michael Schultz's Carbon Copy. This is notable primarily for being the first RKO release in several decades, as its insights into race relations haven't aged well. But 1981 would bring the role that would transform Washington's fortunes.

Private First Class Melvin Peterson is serving at a segregated US Army base in Louisiana in 1944 when an African American sergeant is killed. Washington would share in the Obie Award for the Distinguished Ensemble Performance for A Soldier's Play (1981-83) and toured with the production after its Off-Broadway run had ended. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller was inspired by Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which was adapted for the screen by Peter Ustinov in 1962 and turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, a filmed production of which is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso.

While on the road with the play, Washington was cast as medical resident Dr Phillip Chandler in the hospital saga, St Elsewhere (1982-88), and went on to appear in 118 episodes. Staying on the small screen, he made an impact as Martin Sawyer, who is charged with prosecuting arrogant businessman Tom Fiske (Don Murray) for a drink-driving death in Jud Taylor's teleplay, License to Kill (1984).

A still from A Soldier's Story (1984)
A still from A Soldier's Story (1984)

The same year, Washington reprised the role of Melvin Peterson in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story, which would earn Adolph Caesar a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his performance as the murdered Vernon Waters. Washington returned to television in the title role of Eric Laneuville's The George McKenna Story (aka Hard Lessons), which follows the efforts of a principal striving to eradicate gang culture from a Los Angeles high school. This worthy performance was overshadowed, however, when Washington won the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his work as PR guru Arnold Billings opposite Richard Gere, Gene Hackman and Julie Christie in Sidney Lumet's Power. The role hadn't been written for a Black actor, but few worthwhile parts were in this wilderness period between Blaxploitation and New Black Cinema. But things were about to change and Washington would be very much to the fore.

Oscar Glory

He first came to international prominence when Richard Attenborough cast him as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987). Adapted from newspaper editor Donald Woods's memoir, the drama focussed on how Woods (Kevin Kline) became increasingly involved in the anti-apartheid movement after Biko's 1977 murder. But Washington impressed sufficiently as the 30 year-old leader of the Black Consciousness Movement to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Having made his Broadway bow in Ron Milner's comedy, Checkmates, Washington returned to the screen in Martin Stellman's For Queen and Country (both 1988). He plays Reuben James, a paratrooper who returns to his London estate from the Falklands only to be subjected to racial harassment by the police. Despite the cutting socio-political edge, this snapshot of Thatcherite Britain found few takers and the same was also true of Carl Schenkel's The Mighty Quinn (1989), in which Washington played Jamaican police chief Xavier Quinn, who puts his reputation on the line to help his childhood friend, Maubee (Robert Townsend). Respected critic Roger Ebert claimed Washington exuded the same kind of charisma as Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. But the film caused some African American women at a test screening to boo when he kissed white actress Mimi Rogers and some have suggested that this explains why he has played so few love scenes during his long career.

A still from Glory (1989)
A still from Glory (1989)

Washington next joined forces with Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher for Edward Zwick's Glory (1989). The central character is Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), who defied the bigotry rife in 1860s America to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. However, Washington was so imposing as belligerent runaway slave Silas Trip that he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In so doing, he became the first Black winner since Lou Gossett, Jr. in Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and the first African American to be nominated in the category twice.

Like so many Oscar victors before and since, Washington made some erratic choices on the back of his win. In James D. Parriott's Heart Condition (1990), he took the role of murdered lawyer Napoleon Stone, who haunts the racist cop (Bob Hoskins) who had received his heart in a transplant. Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) saw Washington encounter more prejudice when carpet cleaner Demetrius Williams falls in love with Mina (Sarita Choudhury), a Ugandan Asian immigrant whose parents disapprove of their relationship.

Sadly, this is not currently available on disc. But Cinema Paradiso users can see race rear its ugly head again in Russell Mulcahy's Ricochet (1991), which confronts cop-turned-lawyer Nick Styles (Washington) with escaped hitman Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow), who joins the Aryan Brotherhood in order to break out of prison and wreak revenge on the LAPD officer who had put him behind bars. While the message was again potent, the action failed to engage critics or audiences and Washington returned to the stage to recharge his batteries in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III. Kenneth Branagh coaxed him back to the Bard by inviting him to play the matchmaking Don Pedro of Aragon in Much Ado About Nothing. However, not everyone proved so flexible when it came to casting and Julia Roberts had to insist on Washington being hired to play Washington Post reporter Gray Grantham in Alan J. Pakula's The Pelican Brief (both 1993), apparently against the wishes of the source author, John Grisham. In 2003, he would reportedly veto Will Smith being cast as juror Nicholas Easter in Gary Fleder's Runaway Jury, with the part going to John Cusack.

A still from The Pelican Brief (1993)
A still from The Pelican Brief (1993)

This episode was far from unusual in Hollywood history. A writer for Cine-Files pointed out that 'Washington's performance as the quietly determined reporter also filled Hollywood screens with an image that did not conform to stereotypes of African American men as predators, saints, or buffoons.' But director Spike Lee countered that 'Hollywood's not really open to accepting strong Black men who aren't doing the buck dance and showing their teeth and grinning.' He continued, 'I don't know why people think racism would not permeate Hollywood when it permeates every fibre of American society.'

Lee even suggested that Washington would have become a star much more quickly had he been a white actor. Others concurred that he had come to specialise in 'characters defined by their grace, dignity, humanity, and inner strength' because the studios were too timid to offer him romantic leads. One role that epitomised this phase of Washington's career was Joe Miller, the lawyer who helps Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) sue the employers who had fired him for having AIDS in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993). Yet, while Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor, Washington wasn't even nominated.

Around this period, Washington moved into the Toluca Lake home where William Holden (the Oscar-winning actor from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Stalag 17, 1953 and Sabrina, 1954) had hosted Ronald and Nancy Reagan's wedding reception. He also made what he considers one of his biggest mistakes, when he turned down the role of Detective David Mills that would be taken by Brad Pitt in David Fincher's Seven (1995). Washington would later decline the lead in Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007) that would earn George Clooney an Oscar nomination. Among the other major movies that Washington nixed were Walter Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982), Don Roos's Love Field (1992), Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World (1993), Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Gary Fleder's Kiss the Girls (both 1997), Stephen Norrington's Blade (1998), Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, Alex Proyas's I, Robot, Charles Stone III's Mr 3000 (all 2004), and Bill Condon's Dreamgirls (2006), while Washington wishes he had landed ensemble roles in Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).

A still from Virtuosity (1995)
A still from Virtuosity (1995)

Back in 1995, he teamed with the relatively unknown Russell Crowe in Brett Leonard's Virtuosity, in which former LAPD officer Parker Barnes (who was jailed for accidentally shooting two reporters while pursuing the terrorist who had killed his family) finds himself tracking down a rogue virtual reality programme called SID 6.7. The bold ideas didn't quite pay off, but this sci-fi thriller is still worth renting from Cinema Paradiso. We can also recommend Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress (both 1995), an adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel that was produced by Washington's own Mundy Lane Entertainment company and in which he excels as 1940s detective, Ezekiel 'Easy' Rawlins.

A reunion with Edward Zwick followed on Courage Under Fire, which cast Washington as Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling, who is dealing with his own post-combat travails when he's asked to investigate whether Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) should be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor after leading a helicopter rescue during the Gulf War. Revealing previously little seen darker depths, this controlled performance was followed with a lighter assignment, as Washington teamed with Whitney Houston in Penny Marshall's The Preacher's Wife (both 1996), a romantic comedy that reworked Henry Koster's festive favourite, The Bishop's Wife (1947), which had starred Cary Grant and Loretta Young.

The film brought back memories of Washington's childhood and prompted him to reflect on his own faith. The previous year, he had donated $2.5 million towards the new West Angeles Church of God in Christ. A couple of years later, he reflected, 'A part of me still says, "Maybe, Denzel, you're supposed to preach. Maybe you're still compromising." I've had an opportunity to play great men and, through their words, to preach. I take what talent I've been given seriously, and I want to use it for good.'

Spike, Tony & Antoine

Although Washington has worked with some important directors, collaborating with Edward Zwick, Norman Jewison and Jonathan Demme on more than one occasion, the trio who have had the biggest impact on his screen fortunes are Spike Lee, Tony Scott and Antoine Fuqua.

A still from Mo' Better Blues (1990)
A still from Mo' Better Blues (1990)

Washington first hooked up with Lee to play trumpeter Minifield 'Bleek' Gilliam in Mo' Better Blues (1990), a jazz comedy centred around a ménage involving Joie Lee and Cynda Williams. The film drew criticism, however, for its depiction of the Jewish club owners played by John and Nicholas Turturro. Lee and Washington also fell out over the latter's insistence on keeping his shirt on during the bedroom sequences. But they patched up in time to make Malcolm X (1992).

Producer Marvin Worth had known Malcolm as a teenager and had acquired the rights to the autobiography he had written with Arthur Haley before his assassination in February 1965. Writer James Baldwin had joked that Hollywood had considered casting Charlton Heston in blackface before Worth and Arnold Perl released the Oscar-nominated documentary, Malcolm X: His Own Story As It Happened (1971). Several attempts were made to produce a biopic script before Lee took over from Norman Jewison after he had cast Washington, as the onetime hustler whose conversion to Islam in prison puts him on the road to political activism.

The production became the first non-documentary and first US feature to film in Mecca and included cameos by Nelson Mandela, Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale and activist minister Al Sharpton. A closing montage of archive material shows how fully Washington captures Malcolm and he was unlucky to come up against Al Pacino in Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman (1992) at the Academy Awards.

Having failed to greenlight a biopic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Washington and Lee came together in 1998 for another sports-related project, He Got Game. The story turns on the efforts of Jake Shuttlesworth (who is serving time for accidentally killing his wife) to persuade son, Jesus (Ray Allen), to take a basketball scholarship at the state governor's old university. Critics praised the performances, while being frustrated by the direction and eight years were to pass before Lee and Washington came together for the fourth and final time on Inside Man (2006), a project that had been started by Ron Howard.

A still from Inside Man (2006) With Jodie Foster And Denzel Washington
A still from Inside Man (2006) With Jodie Foster And Denzel Washington

The racial subtext simmers below the surface of this heist thriller, which sees NYPD negotiator Keith Frazier (Washington) try to persuade bank robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) to end a Wall Street siege. Lee gave Washington the choice of roles and he opted against playing the thief because his sunglasses, mask and hood prevented him from acting with his eyes. Although Washington and Lee have since gone their separate ways, son John David Washington got his big break as undercover cop Ron Stallworth in the fact-based Oscar-nominated drama, BlacKKKlansman (2018).

Speaking of family connections, Washington's daughter, Katia, worked as a production assistant on Django Unchained (2012) after her father had clashed with director Quentin Tarantino (who had been hired to beef up the dialogue) on the set of Tony Scott's Crimson Tide (1995). Besides this incident, Washington enjoyed working with Gene Hackman, as Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter and Captain Frank Ramsey disagree over tactics aboard the submarine USS Alabama.

Despite Washington's rapport with Scott, a decade passed before he sought him out again for Man on Fire (2004), an adaptation of an A.J. Quinnell thriller that had previously been filmed by Elie Chouraqui in 1987. Washington delves into his darker side to play ex-CIA operative John W. Creasy, who goes on a vigilante rampage after the nine year-old (Dakota Fanning) he is protecting is kidnapped in Mexico City. Two years later, actor and director reconvened for Déjà Vu (2006), in which government agent Douglas Carlin seeks to go back in time to prevent a terrorist attack on New Orleans.

Scott hadn't been entirely convinced by the wormhole concept and had briefly quit the project before Washington had coaxed him into returning. But he was more committed to The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), a breakneck thriller set on the New York subway system that cast Washington and John Travolta in the roles of dispatcher Garber and crook Ryder that had been taken by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in Joseph Sargent's 1974 adaptation of John Godey's novel.

Rails also have a key part to play in Unstoppable (2010), a recreation of an actual runaway train incident that teamed engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) in a desperate bid to prevent a disaster. This would be Washington's last assignment for Scott, however, as he jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles two years later.

A still from Training Day (2001) With Denzel Washington And Ethan Hawke
A still from Training Day (2001) With Denzel Washington And Ethan Hawke

Just as Scott envisaged Washington as a man of action, Antoine Fuqua was keen to explore his hidden depths in casting him as corrupt LAPD narcotics officer Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001). The new partner receiving the benefit of Harris's warped wisdom is Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), as they tour their patch in South Central, Westlake and Echo Park. David Ayer's screenplay proved divisive, but Hawke received a Best Supporting nomination, while Washington became the first African American since Sidney Poitier for Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field (1963) to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

Fittingly, Poitier (who is also the subject of one of Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know profiles) was presented with an honorary award the same night. A prequel, Training Day: Day of the Riot, is currently in production, but neither Washington nor Fuqua is involved.

The pair are not averse to revisiting old material, however, as they proved when they reunited for The Equalizer (2014), which was based on the TV series of the same name (1985-89) , in which Edward Woodward had played ex-covert operations officer-turned-troubleshooter, Robert McCall. Washington's incarnation is a former US Marine and intelligence agent who comes out of retirement to protect teenage prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) from the Russian mafia.

Doubling as producer, Washington would reprise the role in his first sequel, The Equalizer 2 (2018), which sets McCall after the killers of his best friend. Subsequently, Queen Latifah has headlined the spin-off series, The Equalizer (2021), while Washington and Fuqua are set to return to Boston soon to complete their trilogy.

Remaining in remake mode, Fuqua recruited Washington to partner Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier in The Magnificent Seven (2016). Coming 56 years after John Sturges's epic 1960 Western of the same name, the reboot also paid its dues to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner had been linked with the project before Fuqua took over. His refusal to recycle horse opera stereotypes is admirable, while with Sam Chisholm, Washington once again demonstrated that he could play hard men with a brooding dignity to match their ruthlessness.

A Unique Double

Back in 1998, Washington ventured into the horror genre for the first time in Gregory Hoblit's Fallen, in which Philadelphia detective John Hobbes and his partner, Jonesy (John Goodman), make an eerie discovery while investigating a series of murders that appear to be the work of a copycat killer. The same year saw him renew acquaintance with Edward Zwick for The Siege, which drives FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (Washington) into conflict with CIA Operative Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) over how to deal with a series of terrorist attacks on New York. Unfortunately, the film's pre-9/11 depiction of American Muslims very much counts against it. But Bruce Willis probably doesn't look back on it with much pride, either, as he won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor for his work in this, Harold Becker's Mercury Rising and Michael Bay's Armageddon (all 1998).

A still from The Bone Collector (1999) With Denzel Washington And Angelina Jolie
A still from The Bone Collector (1999) With Denzel Washington And Angelina Jolie

Next up, Washington essayed tetraplegic forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme, as he teams up with rookie NYPD cop Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) in order to track down a disturbed serial killer in Phillip Noyce's adaptation of Jeffrey Deaver's The Bone Collector. Few were convinced by the plot's contrivances, however, although fact proved to be more capricious than fiction in Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (both 1999), which retold the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of a triple murder in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. A parallel plotline sees Brooklyn boy Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon) become interesting in Carter's case and persuade his Canadian foster family to lodge an appeal.

Washington lost 60lbs for a picture that was accused by some of tinkering with the truth. Nevertheless, in addition to receiving another Oscar nomination, he also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor and the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. However, his victory for Training Day four years later ensured that he became the first African American to win the Academy Awards for both Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor.

Disney was the next port of call in Boaz Yakin's biopic, Remember the Titans (2000), in which coach Herman Boone (Washington) and assistant Bill Yoast (Will Patton) put their differences aside during the 1971 season in order to defy racial tensions in the town of Alexandria, Virginia and turn the T.C. Williams High School football team into a winning machine. More odds were overcome (albeit in a more unconventional manner) in Nick Cassavetes's John Q. (2002), as John Quincy Archibald (Washington) takes hostages at the hospital that is demanding an exorbitant fee to perform a heart transplant on his son.

This modern miracle play sparked a debate about healthcare in the United States and Washington found himself on the other side of the medical divide when he agreed to play naval psychologist Jerome Davenport in order to secure the funding for his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher (2002). Washington spent five years trying to put a deal together after he had been approached by producer Todd Black, who had heard about Fisher's turbulent experiences in the US Navy while he was working as a security guard at Sony Pictures. Derek Luke took the title role and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor.

Carl Franklin tempted Washington into a reunion on Out of Time, in which Matthias Lee Whitlock, the police chief in the Florida town of Bunyan Key, realises he is being framed for a double homicide after he embarks upon an adulterous affair. While Washington was filming this slick neo-noir, David Mamet, Joel Schumacher and Ron Howard all approached him with project ideas. But none of them came to fruition.

A still from The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
A still from The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Jonathan Demme did, however, get to make his version of Richard Condon's thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (2004). John Frankenheimer had directed the 1962 original, with Laurence Harvey playing the war veteran who is manipulated into an assassination attempt by his monstrous mother (the Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury). Frank Sinatra had essayed the comrade-in-arms who saves the day and Washington similarly took on the role of Major Bennett Marco, while Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep were cast as Raymond Shaw and his mother, Eleanor.

Cinema Paradiso users can compare the two interpretations in a conspiracy double bill. Or, they can match Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) with Virtuosity, which was the first pairing of its co-stars, Washington and Russell Crowe. The former plays Frank Lucas. a Harlem drug baron who smuggles supplies of Blue Magic heroin into the United States in the coffins of service personnel being shipped home from the war in Vietnam. On his tail, however, is Newark cop-turned-lawyer, Richie Roberts (Crowe). The film was criticised for its disregard for hard fact, but it still made a tidy profit and earned the estimable Ruby Dee a Best Supporting nomination for her work as Lucas's mother, Mahalee.

Returning to both the moral high ground and the director's chair, Washington played Melville B. Tolson in The Great Debaters (2007), which shows how the African American students at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas honed their debating skills in the mid-1930s to take on the academic élite. But cinema wasn't Washington's primary concern around this time. Five years after receiving mixed reviews for his performance as Brutus in a Broadway revival of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (2005), he returned to the boards to win a Tony Award alongside Viola Davis in August Wilson's Fences (2010) - more of which anon.

Further stage triumphs would come in a 2014 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama, A Raisin in the Sun - which has twice been filmed, by Daniel Petrie and Sidney Poitier in 1961 and by Kenny Leon and Sean Coombs in 2008 - and in a 2018 reboot of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, which John Frankenheimer had adapted with Lee Marvin, Fredric March and Robert Ryan in 1973.

Back on screen, Washington ended the decade as the star/producer of Allen and Albert Hughes's The Book of Eli (2010), a futuristic neo-Western set three decades after a nuclear conflagration that follows Eli, as he tries to evade the clutches of Bill Carnegie (Gary Oldman) to deliver a Bible into safe keeping on the West Coast. The reviews were lukewarm, but Washington was commended for his turn as the blind wanderer with heightened survival instincts.

Joining an Exclusive Club

In 2011, Washington returned to South Africa for Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's English-language debut, Safe House. Once again straying off the straight and narrow, he plays rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost, who goes on the lam in Cape Town with inexperienced agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) after their sanctuary is infiltrated. During one scene, Washington was subjected to waterboarding by veteran operative Robert Patrick. He didn't have to resort to such Method tactics, however, in playing an alcoholic drug addict in Robert Zemeckis's Flight (both 2012).

William 'Whip' Whitaker is a popular pilot who is hailed as a hero after he executes a controlled landing after his plane malfunctions in mid-air. As four passengers and two crew members were killed, however, an inquiry is held and Whip is forced to coerce a couple of colleagues into testifying that he was not drunk in the cockpit. Co-starring Kelly Reilly, as a recovering addict who discovers Whip's seedy side, this tense drama earned Washington a second Golden Globe and another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

A still from 2 Guns (2013) With Denzel Washington And Mark Wahlberg
A still from 2 Guns (2013) With Denzel Washington And Mark Wahlberg

The action was more rambunctious in Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's 2 Guns (2013), an adaptation of a series by Steven Grant and Mateus Santolouco that saw Washington head into comic-book territory for the first time. He forges a fiery bond with Mark Wahlberg, as they become involved with Mexican druglords while respectively undercover as DEA agent Bobby Trench and Navy SEAL Stig Stigman.

Further action flicks followed with Antoine Fuqua (see above) before Washington slowed the pace to direct and star in a film version of his stage success, Fences (2016). The scene is Pittsburgh in the 1950s, where ex-baseball pro Troy Maxson works as a garbage collector and has trouble dealing with his war-wounded brother and estranged son. Washington would receive Golden Globe and Oscar citations, as well as a Best Picture nod. But he was upstaged by Viola Davis (who is also part of Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know series), who landed the Best Supporting Actress hat-trick of Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for her performance as Troy's long-suffering wife, Rose.

Further Golden Globe recognition came Washington's way for his performance in Dan Gilroy's Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), a legal saga in which a principled lawyer with poor presentational skills finds himself out of his depth and facing an ethical dilemma after accepting a job with the big city firm run by the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell).

However, Washington hasn't been seen on our screens quite so regularly since. In 2020, he contented himself with producing another August Wilson adaptation, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for director George C. Wolfe, which teamed Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, in what proved to be his last picture. The following year, Washington remained in the director's chair forA Journal For Jordan (2021), which was adapted from a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Dana Canedy. Chanté Adams plays Canedy, while Michael B. Jordan co-stars as Charles Moore King, a soldier who keeps a diary for his infant son while serving in Iraq.

In what proved a busy year, Washington also played Sheriff Joe Deacon in John Lee Hancock's The Little Things, a neo-noir set in Los Angeles in the 1990s that had been caught in development hell for 18 years. Partnered with Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), Deke is tasked with solving a series of murders and becomes obsessed with repair store worker Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Leto received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work. But Washington trumped him with a Best Actor nod for Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth (both 2021).

By racking up his 10th Oscar nomination, Washington joined Laurence Olivier, Paul Newman, Michael Caine, and Jack Nicholson in an exclusive club as the only male actors to have been nominated in five different decades. Not bad, considering he hadn't read or seen the Scottish Play before he signed to co-star with Frances McDormand (another member of Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know coterie).

In July 2022, Washington was forced to pull out of a ceremony to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden after testing positive for Covid-19. He has never been one for the limelight, however, preferring to let his work do the talking. For, as Sidney Poitier once told him, 'If they see you for free all week, they won't pay to see you on the weekend.'

A still from The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
A still from The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
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