Of all A-list stars, Denzel Washington’s career may be the most enviable. Although he has a well-established onscreen persona, it’s mutable enough to allow him to move from R-rated action films (The Book of Eli) to serious dramas (Philadelphia) to passion projects with frequent collaborators (like Spike Lee). Tied to no franchise — seriously, until The Equalizer 2, he’d never made a sequel — he puts asses in seats, but not in such huge amounts that there’s any worry of Denzel fatigue setting in. (Consider: He’s been in only five movies that have made more than $100 million domestically, his biggest hit being the relatively modest $130 million of American Gangster). Almost alone among consistent box-office draws, Washington himself is the selling point: Even when he does a remake (The Magnificent Seven, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), you’re going because of him.
Many well-respected actors have worked their way up the Hollywood food chain, trading their Oscar cachet for big paydays and embarrassing themselves in the process. Happily, Washington’s career has not worked that way. Unlike a Nicolas Cage, he has kept from becoming a self-parody, focusing on gritty genre pictures for a few years before throwing us a curveball and doing something deeply moving like a Flight or Fences.
But which performance is his best? With the actor’s second go-round as The Equalizer out this weekend, here are all of Denzel Washington’s movie roles, ranked.
From the Department of Very Bad Ideas, this theoretical “comedy” stars Bob Hoskins as a racist cop — the movie is so open about his racism that he regularly uses the word “spook” — who receives a heart transplant from a black lawyer (Washington) he despised in life but whose murder he now has to solve. This is as groaning a comedy as it sounds. Even though Washington is as graceful as always, and funnier than usual, you occasionally can catch a peek of him glancing offscreen, knowing better things are coming and eager to get out of this. (He made two Spike Lee movies in the next years.)
In Washington’s debut film, he plays the long-lost son of George Segal, a lawyer so concerned about appearances that he hides that he’s Jewish from his anti-Semitic boss; Segal has to decide whether he’ll accept his sudden son or side with the racist jerks at his law firm. Take a guess. Washington is fun and cocksure, but what you really need to know is that the actual tag line on the actual poster — featuring a befuddled Segal looking terrified that he is standing next to a black person — is “Any resemblance between Father and Son is purely hysterical.”
44. John Q (2002)
Washington plays a loving father whose son needs a heart transplant and, because his insurance won’t pay for it, takes a hospital hostage. The movie is a message movie about Our Health Care Crisis, and it’s as subtle as a defibrillator. Washington makes some speeches, we learn Something Has to Be Done, and the movie has the narrative propulsion of a morgue. This is one of those movies in which every character is an idiot — and Denzel does not play “idiot” well.
Denzel wasn’t making it through the ‘90s as a superstar without making at least one terrible “cyber” movie, so here’s his. He’s chasing yet another serial killer in this one, except this time it’s a computer-program killer who looks and talks a lot like Russell Crowe. These sorts of movies never dates well, but this one is particularly moldy. But Crowe does get this delicious bit of robot dialogue: “Just because I’m carrying around the joy of killing your family inside me doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”
42. Déjà Vu (2006)
A Tony Scott joint, but a vastly overstuffed one that tries to be a cop thriller, a time-travel science-fiction jaunt, and a commentary on post-Katrina New Orleans… and it goes as well as you’d expect for a movie trying to cram all those things into a single Hollywood movie. There’s a non-terrible idea here, but it’s buried.
41. 2 Guns (2013)
Sure, it’s a hoot to watch Washington kick back and let his bulletproof swagger do most of the heavy lifting, but 2 Guns isn’t nearly as cool as its star, who teams with Mark Wahlberg to play smartass undercover cops up against the cartel. Their odd-couple pairing has its pleasures, but this is the type of so-so movie Washington does while he’s waiting around for some better material.
Here’s one his many Se7en knockoffs, this one based on a series of novels about a quadriplegic cop, played by Washington, who teams with a rookie cop (Angelina Jolie) to take down a serial killer. Washington tries to give his detective some desperation — he’s devastated by no longer being able to walk — but the movie is too absurd and sloppy to dig much into it. It was supposed to set off a series of films about this detective team. It did not.
This earnest, sweetly dumb family comedy is a remake of The Bishop’s Wife, and stars Washington as an angel from heaven sent to help a preacher (Courtney B. Vance, two decades before he played Johnny Cochran) and his good-hearted wife (Whitney Houston). The movie sets up a love triangle but never really follows through on it: It mostly just wants to give Houston opportunities to sing. She does so, singing like only Whitney Houston could, and viewers end up unchallenged and completely unable to recollect anything else that happened in the movie.
… In which director Antoine Fuqua does the seemingly impossible and makes Washington seem kinda boring onscreen. As the leader of a ragtag group of hombres out to defend a helpless community from a violent sociopath (Peter Sarsgaard), Denzel shoots for the strong, silent type but winds up somewhere between dull and bored. This is even more troubling in a sluggish remake that has a tough time justifying its existence in the first place.
A remake of the 1974 subway-hijack thriller is inferior in just about every way, particularly with its villain, played by a way-too-jacked-up John Travolta. Washington’s a little too, well, Denzel Washington to be believable as a nerdy subway dispatcher pushed into an impossible situation; you know he’s going to end up saving the day because, jeez, he’s Denzel Washington. You can’t nerd up Denzel just by giving him glasses.
Here’s Washington’s postapocalyptic thriller, and it’s not a particularly inspired one. Denzel is still the tough guy, but he’s not unhinged enough to make a world like this one feel quite alive or real. The upside: There’s a conversation between Denzel Washington and Tom Waits in this movie, and we’re just glad to live on a planet where that could happen.
35. Fallen (1998)
Another one of those Se7en knockoffs Washington found himself in, this is among the sillier entries, with a serial-killer mystery that ends up involving Hell itself. Washington does his best to keep this film grounded, but you can’t help but wonder if the insanity of this movie should’ve been leaned into a little more.
A perfectly fine remake that features a perfectly fine performance from Washington as a former soldier who starts to think that he and his buddies (including Liev Schreiber) were brainwashed for nefarious purposes. It’s fun to see the Oscar winner in paranoid-thriller mode — as always, he’s the consummate badass you underestimate at your peril — but this Manchurian Candidate doesn’t require any real stretching on his part.
33. Ricochet (1991)
Washington’s earliest junk thriller, and a sort of fun one: He’s a former cop turned district attorney who has to team with childhood friend-turned-drug dealer Ice-T to stop a crazed serial killer (John Lithgow). If anything, this movie is a showcase for Lithgow, who chews everything in sight; Washington’s hero is a little more down and dirty than he would be in later films
Denzel takes on an English accent as Reuben, a former British soldier who returns home after several years of fighting only to discover that his country sees him less as a war hero and more as a black man during Thatcherism. After a series of setbacks and confrontations with a system stacked against him, Reuben strikes back at the police and government that forgot him. Washington’s ability to get you to instantly root for him helps out a ton here, and his performance is the perfect mix of rage and vulnerability. And yes: He nails the accent.
The Washington movie you’re most likely to wrongly assume was directed by frequent collaborator Tony Scott, Safe House finds the actor playing a brilliant, lethal CIA operative who went rogue, with Ryan Reynolds’s wet-behind-the-ears agent escorting him back to the U.S. to face punishment. The film has that Scott-ian sleekness (but is really directed by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa in his Hollywood debut), and Washington rules with his super-chill cockiness. Still, it’s nobody’s favorite Denzel movie, and you might be forgiven for forgetting it ever existed.
This is a daunting role — that of an uptight lawyer confronting his own homophobia while defending a gay man (Tom Hanks) — but Washington does a fine job transforming the character from a life-lesson surrogate for the audience into a person with actual dimensions. Philadelphia didn’t net him an Oscar nomination, but it was one of the last times he’d play a supporting role in a movie.
Washington’s second film as director is less successful that his first (Antwone Fisher) but still occasionally stirring. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the debate coach at Wiley College who puts together a team — including The Birth of a Nation filmmaker and star Nate Parker, in an early role — that eventually takes on Harvard. It’s essentially a sports movie, and it’s produced by Oprah, which adds to its This Movie Is Good For You vibe. It has its moments, but can’t hold up to Fisher’s power.
28. Power (1986)
This mostly forgotten Sidney Lumet film attempts to be a Big Statement about the Way We Live Now, but mostly it gets caught up in plot mechanics and actorly indulgence. Richard Gere plays a media consultant who gets in over his head, but it’s Washington who shines as a PR expert who’s onto Gere’s nefariousness and begins to mess with his mind. The movie’s eyes are bigger than its stomach: By the end, it falls apart, but Washington remains the lone takeaway.
A movie that’s probably best known in the culture for that great 30 Rock episode that parodied it, The Pelican Brief is an important pivot for Washington, who was transitioning from acclaimed actor to mainstream star. In John Grisham’s original novel the dogged journalist character Gray Grantham was white, but, reportedly, co-star Julia Roberts insisted that Washington be cast in the role. Charismatic and coolly intelligent, Gray was a perfect early platform for Washington’s leading-man chops. Soon, he’d be anchoring every film in which he appeared.
Washington reunited with Glory director Edward Zwick to make this Gulf War drama, in which a lieutenant colonel (Washington) haunted by a mistake he made in the field must investigate whether a female soldier (Meg Ryan) should receive the Medal of Honor for her heroism. Courage Under Fire’s Rashomon-like investigation and gender politics aren’t particularly riveting, but Washington’s steady righteousness is nicely undercut by the character’s inability to forgive himself for his own sins. Few actors make self-torture feel like a kind of heroism.
If you didn’t know any better, this would look like just another junky early ‘00s Washington thriller; I mean, Dean Cain is in this movie. But give it another glance. Directed by Carl Franklin, Out of Time is a dark, funny, sexy offering about an alcoholic Florida cop who stumbles into a series of messes and has to maneuver himself out. The movie is overplotted, over-the-top, and overheated, but it’s still a blast, and Washington seems to get the movie’s odd-angle vibe: Take a step back, and it’s almost a more conventional test run for Inherent Vice, except in Florida and with rum rather than weed.
Here’s Denzel in crowd-pleaser mode. Yeah, Remember the Titans is hokey, but when you have somebody so damn compelling in the lead role, who cares? Based on a true story of a football coach who tries to unite a racially integrated team in 1971, the film is anchored by Washington’s unfussy decency and his belief that he can make any inspirational speech feel like resonant truth. If you were on his team, you’d be willing to run through a brick wall for the guy.
“I’ve never acted as silly in a movie as I am in this one.” That’s how Washington described his portrayal of Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s sunny adaptation, and the big smile on his face in the interview suggests how much he enjoyed the change of pace. Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t suggest the actor missed his calling as an interpreter of Shakespeare — he’s not entirely comfortable in the role — but he is enormously charismatic, flashing the sex appeal and good humor he usually puts aside in favor of dark gravitas.
22. The Siege (1998)
The profile of this Zwick-directed drama increased after 9/11, when its story of a New York City under martial law after a series of Islamist terrorist attacks became newly urgent and relevant. The movie’s politics are still in the right place – it ends with a passionate Washington speech about ideals in the face of terrorism – but it suffers from a clunky narrative, ham-fisted earnestness, and an oddly off performance from Bruce Willis. Still, Denzel’s speech resonates almost two decades later.
Washington made his directorial debut with this story of a young man (Derek Luke) who struggles with feelings of rage and fear and attempts to discover their source with his therapist (Washington). Inspired by the true story of a security guard on the Sony Pictures lot, this is Good Will Hunting but a lot better and more lived-in. It’s also a lot rawer at points, thanks largely to Luke’s powerful performance and Washington’s unflinching direction. This is a much stronger film than you remember.
20. The Equalizer and The Equalizer 2 (2014, 2018)
A violent, nasty role based on a forgotten ‘80s TV show — and yet, Washington makes it work through sheer force of stardom. His black-ops vigilante is among his most pitiless characters, and although he never quite asks you to like the guy, The Equalizer is an underrated marvel of kicking ass with ruthless, amoral efficiency. Washington was about to turn 60 when the first of these thrillers came out, but there’s no sign of slowdown in the guy: If anything, age has only solidified his imposing air.
His final collaboration with director Tony Scott, who took his life two years later, Unstoppable is an old-fashioned, man-versus-train thriller, and as such provides a latter-day example of just how fantastic Washington can be when he plays smart, no-nonsense men. While he’s clearly the star, Washington’s also an excellent duet partner, working seamlessly with then-newcomer Chris Pine as they battle to stay alive while corralling a runaway locomotive. What a simple premise — and look how Washington makes it sing.
If we were ranking Washington’s performances based solely on their cold-bloodedness, American Gangster’s Frank Lucas would be near the top. This Harlem gangster operates by a strict moral code — don’t they all? — but the ferocity of Washington’s portrayal is enhanced by the character’s racial resentment. As admired and feared as Lucas may be, he’s also a black man living in White America, and he carries that chip on his shoulder with a perpetual anger that suggests that no amount of power will ever remove it.
Washington earned his ninth Oscar nomination — and sixth Best Actor nod — for his peculiar, utterly fascinating portrait of the title character, an aggressively principled defense attorney who faces an ethical crisis of his own making. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a profoundly odd character drama — Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy tries to graft a thriller subplot onto the story near the end — and it’s driven by Roman’s idealistic, combative attitude. This aging champion for the little guy yearns for a fight at every occasion, not aware that his stubbornness and ego have proved to be his undoing, and Washington responds with a harried, vulnerable performance. For fans who have gotten used to the actor’s more swaggering portrayals, Roman J. Israel, Esq. represents a bracing change of pace, as Washington shows us the flop sweat and desperation of a righteous man coming to terms with the fact that his years of activism have done little to change the world.
Washington was featured in most of the movie’s advertising, but he’s actually a supporting character in this adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about a black officer (Howard Rollins) investigating the murder of a black sergeant in Louisiana toward the end of World War II. Denzel plays the earnest private with a secret with a smart, eager-to-please manner that disguises the cunning and danger underneath. It’s a terrific performance, and even with all the other fine actors onscreen, you keep waiting for Washington to come back.
One of Washington’s big breakthrough roles was as slain activist Stephen Biko, who was killed trying to end apartheid in South Africa. Here, as was the case in so many movies like this in the ‘80s, we’re given a white character (a journalist played by Kevin Kline) to interpret all the black character’s ideas, but at least Kline and Washington play strongly off each other, and otherwise Kline stays out of his way. The movie’s failings aside, Washington kills the accent and hits his big courtroom speech out of the park.
The title does a lot of the work here: Denzel gets to play a man of righteous and furious vengeance. He’s a former CIA operative who finds redemption in a 9-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning) he’s sworn to protect … until she’s kidnapped and he has to go save her. This is a terrific template for all those Liam Neeson action-thrillers that were coming, and Washington basically comes across as the last guy in the world you’d want coming after you. Plus, he gets a killer of a final scene (below).
Among his most impressive achievements is the way Washington can take potentially awards-bait roles and transcend them. His performance as Rubin Carter, the boxer jailed for murders he didn’t commit, couldn’t be more suited to courting Oscar voters — and indeed, he received a Best Actor nod — but he’s consistently convincing as a man who had his life taken away from him. It’s an emotional turn that Washington elevates with his decency, allowing you to feel Carter’s outage and helplessness.
Roger Ebert said this was “one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight,” and wow, was he ever right. This isn’t the best movie Washington has ever been in, and it might not be his best performance, but it could be his most purely charismatic: Every move he makes wafts off the screen. He plays a Caribbean cop trying to save a childhood friend (Robert Townsend) from doing time for a crime he didn’t commit, but this is really just about Denzel being the most charming man on the planet. Seriously, watch him play the piano below. It’s almost unfair.
After working together on three films that dealt with race and class, Washington and Spike Lee made a straightforward crime thriller that, naturally, was the biggest hit of the bunch. But that shouldn’t diminish how terrific Inside Man is — or the greatness of Washington’s suave hostage negotiator as he squares off against Clive Owen’s equally unflappable bank thief. Washington always brings a little extra crackle when he’s in a Lee joint, and he gives this street-savvy character a jazzlike improvisational flair that’s both compelling and exciting.
10. Glory (1989)
It’s very possible Washington won his first Oscar solely on the strength of Glory’s whipping scene (below), which highlighted the actor’s ability to meld defiance and vulnerability. Because Glory is yet another white-savior drama, it’s tempting to underrate the movie or his performance, but Washington’s Trip is a vibrant, cocky character that’s lost none of his spark almost 30 years later. Here’s where the actor demonstrated that he was among the most commanding presences onscreen — a star in the making.
When Flight hit theaters, Washington had mostly put aside challenging roles for punch-the-clock thrillers. But this Robert Zemeckis drama reminded viewers that Washington could still deliver layered performances. He’s exceptional as a hero-pilot who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the addiction problems that threaten to destroy him. The Oscar winner often plays badasses or righteous heroes, but here he portrays a pathetic, small man, and the change of pace makes it all the more gripping.
Mira Nair now makes big Disney movies (Queen of Katwe) and even ambitious biopics (Amelia), but she was never better than here, her follow-up to Salaam Bombay! She tells the story of an Indian-American woman (Sarita Choudhury) who falls in love with a carpet cleaner (Washington) in Mississippi, and how much trouble each of their families have with the coupling. The movie doesn’t shy away from darker issues and has an underlying sadness, but to focus on that would deny just how sexy this movie is, and how the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is sometimes overwhelming. The movie is unfairly forgotten now, but it deserves another look.
Working from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Washington delivers his strongest directorial effort and, in the process, gives a performance that straddles the different categories we’ve laid out for him. As Troy Maxson, a former ballplayer who works in sanitation in 1950s Pittsburgh, he’s funny and charming as hell while also projecting the patriarchal moral force who’s trying to be a role model for righteous living. In many ways, Troy is the Denzel audiences love most: He’s the superhero as regular guy, balancing that 1,000-watt smile with the weary gravitas that’s been the hallmark of his later years. But just when we think we know this noble salt-of-the-earth character, Fences sets us up for its dark twist, which forces us to see Troy not as a man of quiet dignity but, rather, a conceited, angry heel whose troubles have largely been self-inflicted. Washington has played monsters before, but never one who seemed quite so achingly human.
Mo’ Better Blues opened just a few months after Washington won his first Oscar, beginning a fruitful partnership with Lee. Washington plays the trumpeter Bleek, a flashy, jazz-loving young man whose talent is always running neck and neck with his penchant for self-sabotage. On paper, that’s a cliché, but the actor puts real feeling into the role, making Bleek a guy you want to love even when you’re constantly frustrated by how he fouls up his life.
Crimson Tide is from a time when Washington was the brash up-and-comer and Gene Hackman was the warhorse veteran. (How the baton gets passed: In recent films like Safe House and Unstoppable, Washington has taken up the mantle of revered elder statesmen to younger stars.) But he’s not intimidated at all by Hackman’s superior officer, making this one of the 1990s’ best mano-a-mano character-driven thrillers: never hammy, consistently tense, and a perfect platform for two ace actors.
A box-office disappointment, this adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel actually got more attention for then-newcomer Don Cheadle’s scene-stealing turn as a lunatic associate of Washington’s main character, the cool, calculating private eye Easy Rawlins. Still, it’s Washington who provides Devil in a Blue Dress with its swaggering stride by delivering a deft, edgy character portrait that resonates with the racism of postwar L.A.
Washington was never more heartbreaking than in Lee’s He Got Game, which concerns a convicted murderer (Washington) who’s let out of prison for a week by the governor in exchange for convincing his talented basketball-playing son (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor’s alma mater. This is a story about redemption, but Washington’s uneducated, wary character makes that personal transformation seem unlikely — which only makes it more moving. It’s a performance full of thwarted male pride, and the actor brings poignancy to this strained father-son bond, playing a bad man who has to finally learn how to be the good guy
At first, this looks like just another mismatched cop thriller, with Denzel as the street-smart veteran teaching young pup Ethan Hawke a few tricks. But slowly it’s revealed that Detective Alonzo Harris is more corrupt, and more pathetic, and much more dangerous, than it first appeared. Washington won an Oscar for this performance, and boy, did he deserve it: He took a genre thriller and turned it into something scary and funny and sexy and at times terrifying. Washington had mostly been playing a series of noble but dull heroes before Training Day, and you can see him relishing the chance to play a bit of a monster, albeit one he can’t help but make human. It’s a thunderous performance that’s impossible to turn off whenever it shows up on a random Saturday afternoon on cable. He should really play more bad guys.
1. Malcolm X (1992)
This wasn’t the first time Denzel Washington played the slain civil-rights leader — in the early 1980s, the actor portrayed him on the stage in When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. So he was prepared when he signed up for Spike Lee’s most ambitious film, although he still took a year off from other work to immerse himself into the man’s mind-set. Washington nails Malcolm’s steely militancy and gift of gab, but the performance goes far deeper, examining the early failings and eventual righteous fury that transformed him into a once-in-a-lifetime political figure. Malcolm X is Washington at his most powerful and searching, his funniest and most inspiring. And believe us, you don’t want to go back and see who beat him for Best Actor that year.