Given that many of his films reflect what you might call the broad sweep of black history, a way-too-clever writer might try to compare Denzel Washington – exemplary family man, matinee idol with a conscience, two-time Academy Award winner and the first African-American to win a Best Actor Oscar – to our current president. A smarter writer, however, might compare him to other actors, perhaps including those of other ethnicities.
Washington is, among other things, an old-fashioned movie star. Trained on the stage, he confesses to being influenced by "the method," yet his acting has none of the emotional fetishism that is so common in the post-Marlon Brando movie world. Indeed, his complete ease before the camera and his low-key joy of performance is probably most similar to Spencer Tracy. The stocky, un-pretty Tracy was nearly the physical opposite of Washington. Still, the relaxed charisma, the ability to generate a laugh or a shiver with a simple expression, and Washington's awe-inspiring commitment and confidence mirrors the ability of the classic era great, whose only advice to young thespians was to learn their lines and avoid bumping into the furniture.
Indeed, as the meticulously handsome Washington steps into the shoes of slob par excellance Walter Matthau in director Tony Scott's remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123", it's an opportune time to take a look at some of the lesser-known films from the actor's back catalog. They're quite an assortment, sometimes messy and imperfect, but always worthy of your attention. Denzel Washington rarely makes a boring choice.
"Carbon Copy" (1981)
Washington's feature debut, a broad racial comedy from writer Stanley Shapiro and director Michael Schultz ("Car Wash," "The Last Dragon"), was a poorly made box office bomb; even today it's available only as a sub-par, panned-and-scanned DVD. It is also, however, the most interesting film on this list, and the weirdest. Washington is cast as 17-year-old Roger Porter, who turns up on the doorstep of his father, a self-hating Jewish executive (George Segal) who had abandoned his black girlfriend years before. In no time, he is an ex-executive, newly single, and he and young Roger find themselves scraping together an existence deep in the heart of L.A.'s ghetto. If this doesn't sound particularly funny, a lot of this movie is not particularly funny – and it's noxious handling of Whitney's hateful wife (Susan St. James) would cause a riot today. On the other hand, the attitudes it documents are a powerful reminder of the progress that's been made in the years since, and the hypocrisy that still remains. It's equally fascinating to see a very young looking Washington, who hasn't made many comedies since, dominating all of his scenes in a film populated by veteran comic actors. It gets better because, near the end of the film, Washington gives a speech that reveals the truth behind his character, imbuing it with a directness and honesty that is genuinely moving, and nearly redeems this provocative mess of a movie. Few knew it, but Washington was already a star.
"A Soldier's Story" (1984)
A flashback-heavy racial-historical whodunit about an army lawyer (Howard E. Rollins) investigating the murder of a sadistic sergeant (Adolph Caesar) in a segregated black army unit during the waning days of World War II, this thorny tale about intra-racial racism is somewhat obscure now, but was an unexpected hit on its original release. Recreating a role he played off-Broadway in writer Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play," Washington is both a standout and a steady member of a strong ensemble that includes future comedy stars Robert Townsend and David Alan Grier. Moreover, he shows himself to have tremendous presence in his scenes with the diminutive Caesar, a massive force despite his tiny stature. Washington allows himself to be intimidated and pushed, yet also never ventures into self-pity or excess emotion. In any case, while he was already a star on television via his role as a young doctor on the groundbreaking dramedy, "St. Elsewhere," this was the film that allowed Washington to establish his now-familiar big screen persona – a combination of charisma, controlled emotion and humor that audiences are still finding impossible to resist, whether he's playing a hero, a brute, or something in between. On the film's DVD commentary, veteran director Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night") alludes to some minor run-ins with the strong-minded young actor, but they worked together again on 1999's "The Hurricane." Washington is too smart to argue with creative success.
"For Queen and Country" (1988)
Washington's Oscar-nominated performance as slain anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko in 1987's otherwise muddled "Cry Freedom" fully established the actor as superstar material and, with "St. Elsewhere" nearing the end of its run, it was time to actively pursue a career as a leading man. In this low-key English entry, Washington exchanged Biko's South African lilt for an attempt at a working-class London accent as Reuben James, a British paratrooper who returns from morally foggy battles in Northern Ireland and the Falklands Islands, only to find himself forgotten by the country he fought for, and embroiled in the complex politics of his crime-ridden neighborhood. It's a deeply layered, entirely complete performance. In Washington's first real "leading man" role, he shows himself as an effective onscreen lover in his performance opposite Amanda Redman ("Sexy Beast") as an overstressed single mother willing to brave English racism to be with the essentially decent, charismatic Reuben. However, Washington develops an even more touching rapport with Dorian Healy as his close war buddy struggling with alcoholism and a partial disability that doesn't seem to hamper his ability to get into needless fights, cheat on his pregnant wife, or court even worse trouble (today we'd call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.) It's quite frankly one of the most honest and realistic portrayals of a strained friendship we've seen in a while, in a film that deserves to be more widely known.
"The Mighty Quinn" (1989)
Washington's first true starring role in a U.S. release was this reggae-spiked comic thriller about a Caribbean police chief whose ganja-dealing best friend (Washington pal Robert Townsend) is implicated in the murder of a millionaire involved in Reagan-era skullduggery. Written by Hampton Fancher ("Blade Runner," "The Minus Man"), "The Mighty Quinn" received justifiably mixed reviews, but it was championed by Roger Ebert who saw in Washington's urgent, yet relaxed, performance the possible emergence of a great film star on the level of Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Robert Mitchum. Roger wasn't wrong. "The Mighty Quinn" shows Washington as everything a movie star needs to be – committed, humorous, empathetic in scenes with Townsend, as well as with Sheryl Lee Ralph as the estranged wife he still loves, and so maddeningly attractive that African-American women supposedly booed at previews when he kissed the very sexy -- but white -- Mimi Rogers. It remains a touchy matter, but the audience-aware actor is supposed to have requested the removal of the offending osculation from the final film. Washington denies having anything to do with it, but it was almost a decade before he kissed another white woman on screen. (It's true that Hollywood in the ‘90s was generally slow to have black actors romance white leading ladies.) In any case, "The Mighty Quinn" is a must for any serious fan of Mr. Washington – if for no other reason than that it's the only film we know of to really highlight Washington's singing skills. He's good at that, too.
"Mo' Better Blues" (1990)
At the dawn of the 20th century's final decade, Denzel Washington was big news in the wake of his supporting actor Oscar for the Civil War epic, "Glory." Multi-hyphenate filmmaker (jointmaker?) Spike Lee was even bigger news in the wake of the controversial instant classic, "Do the Right Thing." While their first film together got mixed reviews and attracted only the kind of annoying controversy that sells no tickets (over two extremely minor, stereotypical Jewish characters played by John and Nicholas Turturro), it generated one of Washington's more intriguing performances. "Mo Better Blues" focuses on the emotional disconnection of Bleek Gilliam, an ultra-talented, ultra-dedicated jazz musician so married to the music in his head that the two women in his life (Joie Lee and Cynda Williams) play only a very distant second. Typically enough for a Spike Lee movie, Washington figures in lots of baroque shots where he must compete with Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's color-laden compositions, but he never seems to disappear. A striking repeated motif where he mimes his trumpet playing sans trumpet, singing the lines he'll later be playing, is probably the closest thing we'll ever get in cinema to portraying the thought processes that go into making great music. As of this writing, Lee and Washington are planning their fifth film together. Something obviously gelled here. Their mutual career highlight, "Malcolm X," was only two years away.
"Mississippi Masala" (1991)
This meandering indie romance never truly broke out of the art-house ghetto, but there are worse date movies out there, trust us. Directed by Mira Nair ("The Namesake," "Monsoon Wedding") "Mississippi Masala" opens in early ‘70s Uganda, as the mad General Idi Amin expels the nation's entire Asian population. Years later, Denzel Washington's Demetrius Williams, a good-guy carpet cleaning entrepreneur in the deep South, is forced to deal with the results when he finds himself falling hard for Meena (Sarita Choudhury), the beautiful daughter of one of the expelled families. Not only does her hotel-owner father (Roshan Seth) have some rather complicated feelings about black people left over from his African past, but traditional Indian families are rarely thrilled when their daughters run off for secret weekends in Biloxi with anyone, particularly non-Indians. Though Washington's name is at the top of the cast list here, he's but one ingredient in the mixed-up cultural milieu to which the film's curry-inspired title alludes. In fact, the story is perhaps even more about Meena's father than it is about her unstoppable attraction for Demetrius. Still, by this time the actor had proven himself to be a remarkably consistent performer, and this is a classic Washington performance, filled with low-key humor and charisma, allowing some real erotic chemistry with his attractive co-star from the much lusted-after actor. Something tells us female members of the early ‘90s art-house crowd were especially pleased.
"Much Ado About Nothing" (1993)
Taking a break from racial controversy following his triumph in "Malcolm X," Denzel Washington went back to his classical roots in this breezily watchable all-star production of Shakespeare's farce of mistaken motivations, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Washington's onscreen authority is crucial in his third-billed role as warrior prince Don Pedro. Recently victorious in battle, he and his men have love on their mind. Still, after being rejected by the sharp-witted Beatrice (Emma Thompson), he is big enough to participate in a scheme to trick both her and her apparent enemy, Benedick (Kenneth Branagh), into falling for each other. As a major production featuring truly race-blind "nontraditional" casting in a key role, "Much Ado About Nothing" is something of an onscreen first. In fact, audiences and critics had no more problem accepting Washington as an Italian prince than they did accepting the extremely British, pasty-faced Branagh as a Mediterranean nobleman. And there was no reason they should not have. Obviously enjoying a rare chance to do comedy (albeit in an often serious role), Washington throws himself into this romp with his air of charismatic authority and genuine grace, mastering the Bard's humor, emotion and poetry with aplomb and developing solid chemistry with his many co-stars. Heck, Washington is such a good actor that we have no problem in believing he is a close relative of Keanu Reeves, in a possible career-worst performance, as his unaccountably evil bastard half-brother. Now that's acting.
"Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995)
It's a real movie tragedy that Washington and then-newcomer Don Cheadle have never reprised their roles as Walter Mosley's accidental P.I. Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, and his psychopathic buddy from back home, Mouse. Unfortunately, despite Washington's bonafide A-list status in the wake of "Philadelphia" and "Crimson Tide," Carl Franklin's mostly spot-on adaptation of Mosley's terrific breakthrough novel failed to catch on at the box office. Cheadle did receive a lot of well-deserved attention for a relatively small, flashy role that gave him such lines as, "If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?", but it was never a question of stealing anyone's thunder. This neo-noir, post World War II, mystery is still Washington's to carry, and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Perhaps most memorable of all is a scene where Rawlins is rescued from a possible lynching by his new boss (Tom Sizemore, at his absolute sleaziest), whose idea of revenge on the offending yahoos is to try to force one of them to perform fellatio on the utterly terrified Easy. Easy is not James Bond or Shaft – he is entirely aware of his own vulnerability, and a born survivor. The way he negotiates this horrific scene -- stuck between a would-be lynch mob and his no-less-viciously racist rescuer -- is not fun to watch, but it informs the rest of the movie and assures us of Denzel Washington's absolute honesty as an actor.
"He Got Game" (1998)
The larger budget and scope of this third (and far from final) Spike Lee-Denzel Washington collaboration is on display in nearly every shot. It's an off-balance but still strangely assured piece of work that features Washington, sporting a goatee and prison-style Afro, in a more "street" role than we're used to seeing him. Specifically, he's convict Jake Shuttlesworth, who's been given a brief furlough and the promise of an early release if he can persuade his miraculously skilled basketball star son, Jesus (real life player Ray Allen), to attend the college of his warden's choice. There's just one problem: Jake is in prison for killing his wife, Jesus' mother. Of course, there's more to it than that. However, the film conceals the details of Mrs. Shuttlesworth's death for some time, and it is up to Washington to make sure the audience maintains enough sympathy with Jake to stay involved in his story -- and he does. He brings us a lonely man (give or take a sexy encounter with Milla Jovovich), all too aware of his anger issues, and somehow we intuitively trust him. Why? Well, acting is about finding truth within the "lie" of fiction, and we believe the truth of this character. If Denzel wants to show us someone lying and intentionally murderous (and he won an Oscar for it in "Training Day"), he'll let us see the truth in that, too.
"The Siege" (1998)
Released 2 years, 11 months and 5 days before 9/11, this tense thriller about terrorist attacks on New York City and an ensuing government overreaction was attacked by Arab-American groups, derided by critics and ignored by audiences. Today, it is often called "prophetic" – news junkies will experience serious déjà vu as phrases like "shred the constitution just a little bit," and arguments over torture and imprisonment without charge dominate the final act. Re-teaming with director Edward Zwick ("Glory," "Courage Under Fire"), Washington plays heroic FBI Agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbard, who finds himself simultaneously trying to head off terror attacks, playing flirty cat and mouse with an extremely crafty CIA agent (Annette Bening), attempting to help his Lebanese-American partner ("Monk"-to-be Tony Shalhoub) free his son from Army detention, and at constitutional and ethical loggerheads with a general (Bruce Willis), whose politically astute verbiage conceals a soul that is one part Dick Cheney and one part Jack Bauer. There's a lot going on in "The Siege," and a lot of great actors to work with, but the best testament to Washington's skill here is how he deals with the film's often problematic third act, when "The Siege" descends into sometimes mawkish preachiness, and a climax that borders on wish fulfillment. Delivering speeches that could have come off like a constitutional lawyer's op-ed, he single-handedly binds the film together the same way he always does – with perfect rapport with his fellow actors and, of course, absolute commitment.