Denzel Washington has been entertaining moviegoers for decades with his captivating performances.
He has brought to life some of the most memorable characters across a range of genres, from comic book hero John Creasy in Man on Fire to grieving father Steven Biko in Cry Freedom. His roles have earned him two Academy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards, and he remains one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood.
Whether you are a longtime fan or just discovering Denzel Washington’s talent, this guide is your definitive look at some of his most iconic characters and why those roles have made such an enduring impact on audiences. We will focus on his performances from the past thirty years so that readers can enjoy a diverse selection of films.
Read on to find out which Denzel Washington movies are must-sees and why they have earned their place in cinematic history.
Denzel Washington’s Early Life and Start in Acting
Before Denzel Washington became one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, he was born on December 28, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York. After graduating college in 1977 with a degree in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University, he joined the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
His portrayal of Walter Lee Younger in the stage production of A Raisin in the Sun was noticed by Hollywood and propelled him to stardom. He made his film debut later that same year as Dr. Phillip Chandler on the television soap opera St. Elsewhere. Since then, Denzel Washington has earned two Academy Awards for his performances in Glory and Training Day as well as being nominated for his roles in Malcolm X, The Hurricane and Flight.
At age 60 plus, Denzel Washington continues to star in some of Hollywood’s biggest movies such as The Equalizer franchise, Roman J. Israel Esq., and Fences which he also directed. His talent is unrivaled by many actors today making him one of Hollywood’s true powerhouses who will no doubt continue to make many memorable performances for years to come.
Memorable Roles in the 1980s: A Soldier’s Story and Power
In the 1980s, Denzel Washington had two breakout roles: that of Sgt. Waters in A Soldier’s Story, and Ezekiel “Easy” Porterhouse III in Power.
A Soldier’s Story is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, and follows a black platoon sergeant investigating the murder of a fellow black soldier while stationed in a 1940s Louisiana Army camp. Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Sgt. Waters—becoming the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar in this category.
In Power, Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Porterhouse III, a fast-talking wheeler-dealer who works at a celebrity nightclub in Los Angeles. His role as Easy helped further establish him as an actor to watch—particularly among younger audiences—and is often cited as one of his first lead characters.
1990s: Malcolm X and Philadelphia
The 1990s saw Denzel Washington take on two iconic roles.
The first was as the renowned civil rights leader Malcolm X. He took on the role of this larger than life personality, portraying Malcolm’s rise from prison inmate to internationally recognized activist with a gripping intensity and conviction. His performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and a Golden Globe win.
In 1993, Denzel Washington won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. His character, an AIDS victim who is wrongfully terminated by his employer, struggles through a torturous legal system to reclaim his freedom and dignity while enduring devastating medical trials. In the end, Beckett triumphs over adversity and his respect for human rights becomes immortalized in cinematic history.
Denzel Washington proved himself again as a master of delivering both lighthearted comedy and affecting drama with these two iconic roles in the 1990s.
2000s: Remember the Titans and Training Day
The 2000s showed us a different side of Denzel Washington. First, he starred in the inspiring sports drama Remember the Titans (2000) as Coach Herman Boone. In this iconic role, Denzel conveyed the importance of perseverance and teamwork through his character’s unwavering courage and determination.
In another memorable role, Denzel had a complete transformation to play Los Angeles detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001). Winning an Academy Award for Best Actor, Denzel showcased his powerful range of acting from emotion-filled monologs to intense battle scenes. He also became an established producer during this decade with several of his films such as The Great Debaters (2007).
2010s: Book of Eli and Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Throughout the 2010s, Denzel Washington starred in two critically-acclaimed films that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Book of Eli (2010)
In Book of Eli Denzel plays a post-apocalyptic traveler who embarks on a mission to deliver a sacred book that could give humanity its salvation. His performance earned him critical acclaim for his portrayal of a man seeking to protect something larger than himself.
Roman J. Israel, Esq (2017)
In Roman J. Israel, Esq, Denzel plays the title character, an idealistic lawyer who attempts to fight for justice in the corrupt courts of Los Angeles. His dedication to his principles is inspiring and thought-provoking, as he struggles between doing what’s right and sacrificing his values to do what’s easier.
By playing two vastly different roles in the same decade, Denzel demonstrated once again why he remains one of today’s most sought-after actors.
Denzel Washington has proven himself to be one of the most iconic actors of all time. From the silver screen debut of his career in 1987’s “Cry Freedom,” to the two-time Oscar winning marvel he is today, Denzel has become a timeless landmark in cinematic history. His iconic roles have touched the hearts of millions of viewers, and his passion for the craft is undeniable. With his latest works, such as the highly acclaimed adaptation of “Fences” (2016) and the heist thriller “2 Guns” (2013), Washington continues to prove that his tremendous talent is far from gone. No matter how long it’s been since his first appearance on the big screen, Denzel Washington will always be remembered as one of the most iconic and memorable actors of all time.
Denzel Washington Quotes
You pray for rain, you gotta deal with the mud too. That’s a part of it.Denzel Washington
I made a commitment to completely cut out drinking and anything that might hamper me from getting my mind and body together. And the floodgates of goodness have opened upon me – spiritually and financially.Denzel Washington