From civil rights activist Malcolm X to wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Denzel Washington has given a number of memorable performances over his 30-plus year career. He added another to his resume in 2017 as a legal savant in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” The film brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, the ninth bid of his career and his eighth for acting. How does this latest entry compare to the rest of his filmography? Tour through our photo gallery above of Washington’s 20 greatest movies ranked from worst to best.
Washington snagged his first Oscar nomination exactly 30 years ago: Best Supporting Actor for “Cry Freedom” (1987). It was a mere two years later when Washington won that category for “Glory” (1989). And he made history 12 years after that when “Training Day” made him the first black actor since Sidney Poitier (“Lilies of the Field” in 1963) to win in the lead category. How much longer will he have to wait to add a third trophy to his shelf?
Washington is now the most nominated actor of color in Oscar history. But do all of his nominated roles make the cut on our list of his all-time best? Take a look through our gallery of Denzel Washington’s 20 greatest performances, including some for which he should have gotten Oscar consideration.
20. “The Great Debaters” (2007)
It’s easy to dismiss Washington’s second directorial effort as a sort of “Dead Poets Society” meets “Rudy” retread. Yet while this inspirational sports drama follows a tried-and-true formula, it does so in a highly satisfactory way. Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at the historically black Wiley College who in 1935 formed the school’s first debate team. They go on to challenge Harvard in the national championship, and while you can see the ending coming from a mile away, we dare you not to applaud. Despite reaping a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama Film, “The Great Debaters” was M.I.A. at the Oscars.
19. “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004)
It’s risky remaking one of the most beloved suspense thrillers of all time, yet Jonathan Demme finds a lot of gold left to mine from Richard Condon’s original novel. Demme updates the action of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic and alters some of the characters, but its central story of a war hero (Liev Schreiber) made to do terrible things with the help of his “loving” mother (Meryl Streep) remains the same. Washington takes over the Frank Sinatra role as Ben Marco, a Gulf War veteran desperately trying to stop his friend from making a grave mistake.
18. “Antwone Fisher” (2002)
After nearly two decades in front of the camera, Washington proved himself a capable director with this autobiographical drama about Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), a troubled navy man forced to come to terms with his past. Washington also stars as Dr. Jerome Davenport, the psychiatrist assigned to treat Fisher after a violent outburst against a fellow crewman. Fisher wrote the script based on his own life story while working as a security guard at Sony, and reaped a Writer’s Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
17. “Inside Man” (2006)
In his fourth (and so far, final) collaboration with Spike Lee, Washington plays a New York City detective who must negotiate with a bank robber (Clive Owen) when his brilliantly-planned heist turns into a hostage situation. Yet a high-stakes broker (Jodie Foster) with a vested interest in the bank’s chairman (Christopher Plummer) makes things a little more complicated. Though a little too labyrinthine for its own good, the film is a fitting tribute to the gritty crime thrillers that inspired it.
16. “Courage Under Fire” (1996)
Washington reunited with director Edward Zwick (“Glory”) for this “Rashomon”-esque Gulf War drama. He plays Nat Serling, a U.S. Army officer investigating a deceased female chopper commander’s (Meg Ryan) worthiness for the Medal of Honor. Yet this is more than just a well-crafted mystery: despondent after a deadly mistake of his own, Serling plunges headfirst into the case to distract from his problems at home. Washington gives a performance filled with grief and anguish that was unbelievably overlooked by the Academy.
15. “Man on Fire” (2004)
Washington is the kind of actor who can class up anything, even the schlockiest of action films. Among his many collaborations with the late Tony Scott, this revenge thriller about a former assassin (Washington) out to avenge the death of a young girl (Dakota Fanning) he was sworn to protect is one of the best. While a bit overlong, the film has several bravura action sequences and affecting performances by Washington, Fanning, and Christopher Walken as an oddball friend.
14. “Crimson Tide” (1995)
Washington goes head-to-head with Gene Hackman in this superb submarine thriller from director Tony Scott. He plays Hunter, a young First Officer aboard a U.S. nuclear sub who stages a mutiny to prevent his hair-trigger Captain (Hackman) from launching a pre-emptive strike against the Russians. Thankfully, a leak doesn’t spring from all the scenery chewing going on between these two acting titans.
13. “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995)
Washington delves into the land of dames, dope, and private dicks in Carl Franklin’s neo-noir classic. Desperate for money, Easy Rawlins (Washington) accepts $100 to track down a missing girl (Jennifer Beals) in 1940s Los Angeles. But things aren’t always as they appear. The film is probably best known for introducing Don Cheadle to the world in an electrifying supporting performance as Rawling’s trigger-happy friend Mouse.
12. “Remember the Titans” (2000)
There’s a reason why “Remember the Titans” is a popular favorite for teachers hoping to mollify their students for two hours. Although far from the most original concept, Boaz Yakin’s sports movie is still a rousing and effective inspirational story. Based on a true story, Washington plays Herman Boone, a coach who leads a newly-integrated high school football team to victory in the 1970s. Manipulative? Yes. Historically inaccurate. Probably. But a crowd pleaser? Absolutely.
11. “Cry Freedom” (1987)
Washington received his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist who died after a severe beating by state police. Unfortunately, Richard Attenborough’s film mainly focuses on Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), a liberal journalist who attempts to expose the police’s complicity in Biko’s death, making for another black-story-through-white-eyes drama. Yet that does little to diminish the power of Washington’s performance or the nobility with which the film was made. Washington lost the Oscar to Sean Connery (“The Untouchables”).
10. “He Got Game” (1998)
On paper, “He Got Game” sounds pretty ridiculous: a man convicted of killing his wife (Washington) is released from prison for a week so he can convince his son (Ray Allen), a talented basketball prospect, to play for the state’s governor’s alma matter in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Yet writer-director Spike Lee turns this into a powerful father-son drama with knockout performances by Washington and real life NBA star Allen.
9. “Flight” (2012)
It took Washington 11 years to return to the Oscar race after his Best Actor win for “Training Day” (2001), and it was well worth the wait. He stars in this Robert Zemeckis drama as an alcoholic pilot who saves almost all of his passengers with a daring landing while on the sauce. Unfortunately, playing a drunk didn’t lead to more Oscar-gold for Washington, who lost to Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”).
8. “Philadelphia” (1993)
Most of the praise for Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” goes to Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. Yet equally impressive is Washington’s turn as the homophobic ambulance chaser hired to represent him when he’s wrongfully terminated by his law firm. Sadly, Washington received no awards recognition for the film, but that doesn’t diminish the subtly with which he charts his character’s development from venal bigot to human right’s advocate.
7. “American Gangster” (2007)
In “Training Day” and “American Gangster,” Washington proves he’s really good when playing bad. Directed by Ridley Scott, this biographical drama recounts the criminal career of Frank Lucas (Washington), a Harlem drug lord who smuggled heroin into the United States through American service planes returning from Vietnam. “American Gangster” is far from a perfect film: it spends too much time on the home-life of the New York City cop (Russell Crowe) charged with taking Lucas down. But Washington is electrifying, as is Ruby Dee in an Oscar-nominated supporting performance as Frank’s loving mother. Despite reaping a Golden Globe bid for Best Film Drama Actor, Washington was snubbed at the Academy Awards.
6. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)
Though this legal drama from Dan Gilroy received mixed reviews, we object to anyone who thinks Washington didn’t give one of his best performances as an autistic, idealistic defense attorney pushed to the brink by life-changing events. Vulnerable, awkward, with outdated clothes and a bad afro, Roman is a change of pace for Washington, who’s better known for playing strong, domineering men. With his eighth acting bid (and ninth overall), Washington broke his own record as the most nominated black performer in Oscar history.
5. “Glory” (1989)
Edward Zwick’s rousing Civil War epic tells the true story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), who lead the Union’s first all-black volunteer company despite prejudices from both the North and South. Washington won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for playing Pvt. Trip, an escaped slave who becomes a leader in the regiment. Brimming with outstanding supporting performances from Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes and Andre Braugher, along with gorgeous, Oscar-winning cinematography by Freddie Fields and a powerful score by James Horner, “Glory” truly is glorious.
4. “Training Day” (2001)
It took 38 years for another black performer to win the Academy Award as Best Actor after Sidney Poitier’s historic victory for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), and it’s fitting that Washington would do so on the same night Poitier received his honorary Oscar. He plays Alonzo Harris, a rogue LAPD detective who shows a young rookie (Ethan Hawke) the ropes in an action-packed first day. Despite some glaring storytelling contrivances, Washington is electrifying in a rare villainous performance. Washington reunited with director Antoine Fuqua on “The Equalizer” (2014) and “The Magnificent Seven” (2016), neither of which led to more Oscar gold.
3. “The Hurricane” (1999)
Despite some historical inaccuracies, there’s no denying Washington gives a knockout performance as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongfully convicted of murder, in Norman Jewison’s biographical drama. Washington looked like a sure thing to win his second Oscar after a Golden Globe victory, but he was defeated in the final round by Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”).
2. “Fences” (2016)
Washington directed his way to Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture with this big screen adaption of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Reprising their Tony-winning roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, Washington and Viola Davis play a long-married couple struggling to raise their son (Jovan Adepo) in 1950s Pittsburgh. Rather than running away from its stage roots, Washington embraces them, making for a dynamite actor’s showcase. He won his first SAG Award as Best Actor for the film, but lost the Oscar to Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”).
1. “Malcolm X” (1992)
Spike Lee handed Washington the role of a lifetime in this biographical epic about the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader. Washington gives us the full scope of Malcolm X’s remarkable life, from his days as a smalltime street hustler to his rise as a minister in the Nation of Islam. Yet the film is more than just a well-made history lesson: it’s a vibrant, lively work of art, with eye-popping cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and a powerful Terence Blanchard score. Although it deserved about a dozen Oscar nominations, it wound up with a mere two: Best Costume Design and Best Actor. Washington may have lost to long-overdue Al Pacino (“Scent of a Woman”), but history has proven who the real best actor of 1992 was.