As part of our Filmmakers of Cannes 2021 series, we will be screening Malcom X this week, directed by this year’s President of the Cannes Film Festival Jury, Spike Lee. A visually striking biopic from the pioneering director, the film stars Denzel Washington as the revolutionary Black leader and thinker.
Washington, of course, is an icon of modern Hollywood, with his signature bold and passionate acting style. Just recently, The New York Times honored Washington as the #1 actor on its list of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)”. With the amazing array of acting roles he has created over the years with Lee and other talented directors, it can be tricky to decide which films/television series to watch first. These 6 roles are a marvelous introduction to the eclectic work of Denzel Washington.
#6 Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child
This HBO original animated series from the late 1990s retold classic fairy tales with racially diverse main characters in their cultural environments, featuring an array of famous celebrities like Washington. Through his roles as both a king and Humpty Dumpty, Washington displayed a playful yet strong performance showing that he is also a talented voice actor.
#5 St. Elsewhere – Dr. Philip Chandler
Washington’s first major television series role places him as Dr. Philip Chandler in St. Eligius, a Boston teaching hospital, where the lives and tragedies of the hospital staff are explored. As a doctor, Washington shows a bluntly honest yet caring demeanor for patients and is willing to go head-to-head with other doctors for them.
#4 Man on Fire – John W. Creasy
After the young daughter of a rich family in Mexico City is kidnapped, ex-CIA operative bodyguard Creasy goes on a journey of vengeance bulldozing his way through corrupt cops and seedy characters. Washington expresses the deep sorrow and guilt of a man who has been forced to kill but finds compassion and the need to nurture through his protection of the young girl.
#3 Glory – Private Trap
This American Civil War drama is based on the Union Army’s first African American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and their struggles for equality both on and off the battlefield. Washington won his first Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor) as Trip, an escaped slave who is embittered and trusts no one yet through time sees the 54th regiment as his family.
#2 Training Day – Alonzo
Washington won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Alonzo, a seasoned but corrupt police officer who takes a rookie LAPD narcotics officer out on his first day, forever changing both of their lives. The controlled energy Washington escalates throughout the film gives Training Day its tension and power, with the powerful line “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” particularly lingering in viewers’ memories.
The Book of Eli
Devil in a Blue Dress
The Magnificent Steven
Remember the Titans
The Pelican Brief
The Manchurian Candidate
#1 Malcolm X – Malcolm X
A jewel in the cinematic crown of Spike Lee, Malcolm X follows the life of the iconic and controversial 1960s civil rights leader. Washington, who was received a Best Actor nomination for the role, channels Malcom’s spiritual intensity, while also showing the complexity of his journey and the Black experience in America. The legacy of Malcom X’s social justice activism and elevation of Islam, along with this film’s artistic style, still influences society today.