Looking Back: Denzel Washington

“The Equalizer” will be Denzel Washington’s fifty-second film, his second collaboration with director Antoine Fuqua; the first was “Training Day,” the film that earned Denzel Washington his second Oscar. On that night in March of 2002, Washington became just the second African-American to win Best Actor. He took the stage to a standing ovation, the camera cutting between Washington’s sincere look of appreciation and awe to Sidney Portier, the first black man to win the award grinning from the balcony above. Of Portier, Washington remarked, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. That’s fine with me.”

At that point, Washington could have very well retired, his place in film history secure, twenty-seven films and two Academy Awards to show for a twenty-four year career. It’s a filmography that includes more than a few highlights; in many cases, he was the highlight. “Cry Freedom” was his breakout, but “Glory,” a film following the first all-black Union regiment during the Civil War, is star-making. He owns every scene he’s in; there’s a raw, searing power being emitted anytime he’s on screen. Watch the whipping scene. Fear, anger, courage, pain, defiance – it’s all in his eyes, an unbroken stare, tears running down his face.

That’s always been Washington’s greatest gift – the eyes. The great actors are those who can do as much with a look as with a monologue. The latter is often showy, music swelling in the background, quick shots of other actors. A monologue by a great actor can be iconic, but it’s put together in editing. But watch Washington in that scene – in any scene – he’s astounding when he has nothing to say.

Denzel Washington rarely displayed his range, unfortunately for us. He always played tough, a ruler of the streets, unwavering and in control. I saw “Flight” after the nominations came out. It’s a better movie than it gets credit for, almost entirely due to Washington’s performance. He’s amazing. He played scared and weak and pulled it off. There’s not a scene that he doesn’t carry, that doesn’t rest fully on his shoulders. He delivers every time.

Since 2001’s “Training Day,” Washington has wracked up another twenty-five films and another Oscar nomination. He’ll be sixty in December. Washington has been relatively quiet in the past few years, with “Flight” being a welcome change-of-pace from space-fillers like “The Book of Eli,” “Safe House,” and “2 Guns,” all films well below the talents of their star. In the last decade we’ve seen the rise of actors such as Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofer, and Jamie Foxx. Actors like Washington and Morgan Freeman are slowly stepping off-stage, cashing paychecks (“Dolphin’s Tale 2,” anyone?).

Race is easily overlooked; in most cases, it shouldn’t be in the discussion. But looking back to that night in 2002, Sidney Portier standing up, holding his Oscar out as a sort of salute to the man to whom it meant so much, it was hard not to feel the gravity of the situation. Perhaps one day it will be Ejiofer or Elba on stage, holding his own statuette, gesturing to Denzel Washington grinning from the balcony, and saying, “I’ll always be chasing you, Denzel.” I, for one, would be just fine with that.

By Lucas Dispoto

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