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Denzel Washington’s Top 10 Performances

on July 19, 2018, 1:00am
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This feature originally ran in September 2014. We’re reposting it in anticipation of The Equalizer 2.

Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. 

Six-time Academy Award nominee and two-time winner. Can play it over-the-top, but knows when he needs to play it cool, to play down. One of the more gracious actors you’ll ever see on the big screen. I’m talking, of course, about Denzel Washington, and through careful consideration, Leah Pickett and I have gone through his filmography to select his 10 finest performances. Keep in mind these rankings are based on Washington’s performances, not the movies in which he performed. Did we forget anything? Did we place a performance too high? Maybe we ranked one that you feel didn’t qualify? Let us know before you hit the theaters for The Equalizer 2 this weekend.

–Justin Gerber
Film Editor

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10. American Gangster (2007)

In one of Washington’s best but least-remembered films, he also plays one of his most nuanced characters to date: the real-life New York gangster and heroin kingpin Frank Lucas. He fully embodies a man who is affable and smooth on the outside, even likable in his insistence on honesty and discretion (“The loudest person in the room is the weakest person in the room,” he warns his flashier brother Huey), with a fount of rage bubbling just beneath the surface. Russell Crowe’s good cop, Richie Roberts, may be the hero, but Washington’s dynamic portrayal of Lucas is the one that draws us in, commanding our attention and daring us to follow him deeper into the underworld. –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

“See, ya’ are what ya’ are in this world. That’s either one of two things: Either you’re somebody, or you ain’t nobody.”

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09. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Washington’s best known for playing strong characters who range from caring to crazy (some appear on this very list), but this remake of John Frankenheimer’s classic requires Washington to play another role: paranoid. Brainwashing, political power plays, and assassination talks contribute to this paranoia, but who will believe Washington’s Major Marco, especially when much of the talk pertains to a vice-presidential candidate and member of his old unit (Liev Schreiber)? Well, not too many people, of course, and Marco begins to unwind as a result. This is the second team-up of Washington and director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia) in a remake that actually deserves to exist. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

“Somebody got into our heads with big steel-toe boots, cable cutters, and a chainsaw, and they went to town. Neurons got exposed and circuits got rewired. Our brain cells got obliterated, Raymond!”

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08. Remember the Titans (2000)

Based on the true story of a Virginia high school’s first racially integrated football team, Washington plays Herman Boone, a black head coach (also the school’s first) hired to lead the initially divided team to unity, then victory. The fact that Titans remains one of Disney’s most financially successful and critically acclaimed live motion pictures is due in large part to Washington’s performance, with his formidable magnetism and gravitas challenging every other actor to meet him at his level. Whether he is pushing his team to no-mercy, no-excuses perfection on the field (“A water break? Water is for cowards”) or imbuing them with humanity and brotherhood in quieter, more tender moments, his Coach Boone is tough love exemplified. –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

[addressing his team at Gettysburg]: “Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead … I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other.”

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07. Philadelphia (1993)

It’s hard to remember that when Philadelphia was released, HIV/AIDS was only just beginning to be talked about in public after years of turning a blind eye. The film deals with a discrimination lawsuit filed against a firm by Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who believes he was fired because he has the aforementioned disease. Hanks justifiably receives much of the credit for the film’s success, but we can’t forget Washington as his lawyer. Washington’s Joe Miller is one of many who were ignorant about homosexuality, AIDS, and all that comes with it. It’s Miller’s transformation from someone afraid to shake Beckett’s hand to someone who is willing to fight for him that remains a pivotal part of Philadelphia’s success. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

“We’re standing here in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. The birthplace of freedom, where the founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal.”

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06. Training Day (2001)

In perhaps his most shocking and provocative role, which also won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, Washington sears the screen as Alonzo Harris, a corrupt LAPD narcotics detective who takes rookie cop Ethan Hawke on a 24-hour, drug-soaked, gang violence-filled ride through hell. For many audience members, this was the first time they had seen Washington in the role of a ruthless, unredeemable villain, as opposed to the moralistic hero roles in films like Cry Freedom, Philadelphia, and The Pelican Brief that had become his calling card. But as this film and others like American Gangster, Man on Fire, and Flight would go on to prove, Washington is capable of playing deeply flawed characters, with Harris standing out as his most despicable villain. –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”

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05. The Hurricane (1999)

In the second Washington/Schreiber pairing to appear on this list, Washington was nominated for another Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. We’re with Carter throughout his time in prison, where he is a man with little hope and faith, accepting the unjust fate bestowed upon him. Washington rises above some of the overly sentimental story beats to deliver a performance that excels in his quietest moments. Anytime he reacts to a bit of good news, his expressions are reserved but impactful. However, Washington is at his best when Carter is at his lowest, particularly the farewell he gives his wife after his imprisonment. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

“I’m dead. Just bury me.”

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04. Crimson Tide (1995)

Das Boot. The Hunt for Red October. Down Periscope. These are three films where much of the action takes place aboard a submarine. The last solid sub actioner is Crimson Tide, thanks to the head-to-head roles (literally, they are in each other’s faces throughout) of Gene Hackman and particularly Washington. Lieutenant-Commander Hunter (Washington) has to put up with passive racism and aggressive control from Hackman’s Captain Ramsey, and he does so in a dignified, controlled manner. It’s a case of old dog vs. new dog, and Washington was more than prepared to bat down anything that was thrown at him. His character rarely loses his cool despite multiple mutinies, betrayal, a claustrophobic environment, and deep red lighting. Seriously, how does anyone keep it together in one of those things? –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

Ramsey: “God help you if you’re wrong.”
Hunter: “If I’m wrong, then we’re at war. God help us all.”

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03. Glory (1989)

Although Washington’s breakout, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom was the first to put him on the map, it was his revelatory turn as the defiant, charismatic Private Trip in Glory that catapulted him to super-stardom and earned him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. On the infamous whipping scene, during which the look in his eyes alone all but guaranteed him the acting profession’s highest honor, Washington has said, “I remember walking around before that scene, just praying and calling on the spirits of all the slaves, because I didn’t know how to play it. I was like, ‘Okay, fellas, just tell me what to do’. And I went out there with an arrogance. I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength … It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, ‘Don’t let him win.'” –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

Rawlins: “He’s just a boy.”
Trip: “He’s a weak white boy, and beatin’ on a nigger make him feel strong.”

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02. He Got Game (1998)

While the name “Jesus Shuttlesworth” is still thrown about as a nickname for NBA/He Got Game star Ray Allen, it is Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth who carries the film. Working once more with Spike Lee, Washington faced his toughest challenge to date. After years of working with established actors from Morgan Freeman to Gene Hackman, he spends much of his screen time opposite a total novice in Allen. The soon-to-be-basketball-Hall-of-Famer does a fine job under the circumstances, but were it not for Washington’s strong performance as Jesus’ father, who is given parole to woo his son into playing ball at the governor’s alma matter, the film would have been A Spike Lee Failure. Instead, the film remains one of Lee’s most underrated Joints and one of Washington’s most underappreciated roles. –Justin Gerber

Choice Denzel Line:

Jesus: “Has God forgiven you for killing my mother?”
Jake: “I pray that he has, son. I believe he has. When will you?”

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01. Malcolm X (1992)

Collaborating once again with writer-director Spike Lee in a political magnum opus that both Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese have acclaimed as one of the 10 best films of the 1990s, Washington accomplishes a near-impossible feat: playing a larger-than-life, highly influential, and controversial figure with exhilarating range, complexity, and grace. Robbed of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1993 (that honor went to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, an overdue gesture for the awards he should have won as Michael in The Godfather: Part II and Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon), Washington’s powerhouse performance as Malcolm X remains one of the most honest and richly layered portrayals of a historical figure ever captured onscreen. –Leah Pickett

Choice Denzel Line:

“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

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