The Best Denzel Washington Movies

In an attempt to celebrate Denzel Washington’s stunning career, we’ve rounded up his ten best performances in one handy list.

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Image via Getty/Piyal Hosain
best denzel washington movies lead

Denzel Washington is easily one of the best actors of the past few decades. His style is dynamic and sophisticated, and he has an unparalleled ability to lend great empathy and nuance to his characters, no matter how deranged they may be (Training Day, anyone?) In other words, Washington is the kind of actor who makes it look easy. He’s effortlessly stealing scenes on the big screen—and, at least in the case of Cry Freedom, entire movies—with his charisma and obvious talent since the 90s, but it can be easy to forget that Washington’s career has been long and varied. His first serious acting gig was as Dr. Phillip Chandler on St. Elsewhere, a groundbreaking hospital drama in the 80s, becoming one of the few African American actors to star in the show. When St. Elsewhere came to an end in 1988, Washington made his move on to the big screen, and the rest is history.

Washington has also expressed an interest and talent for the stage, and even won a Tony award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his role in an adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences in 2010 (Washington later directed the Oscar nominated movie adaptation of the same play.) If you add that Tony to his Oscars (one for Best Supporting Actor in Glory and one for Best Actor in Malcolm X) and his three Golden Globe awards, the man is halfway to a damn EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). He has actually already been nominated for an Emmy and Grammy; the former was for producing two documentaries Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks and Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, and the latter for lending his voice to an audiobook of John Henry: Rabbit Ears in 1996. Your fave could NEVER.

In an attempt to celebrate Denzel Washington’s stunning film career, we’ve rounded up his ten best performances in one handy list. Take a day off and make it a Denzel marathon. Don’t worry, we won’t tell.

Malcolm X (1992)

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Director: Spike Lee

Stars: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo

Denzel’s performance as Malcolm X in this biographical drama won him his first Oscar nominated for Best Actor; the actor manages to explore all the nuances and complexities of Malcolm X’s rich life. The screenplay is based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm’s 1965 autobiography which he co-wrote with Alex Haley (who would later go on to write Roots, the inspiration for the seminal ABC 1970s drama of the same name) and traces the civil rights activist’s early life through to his untimely death in 1965. The film vibrates on a frequency only Spike Lee knows how to achieve, and Denzel is vibrant and comfortable in the titular role, paying perfect homage to an important American figure.

Fences (2016)

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Crimson Tide (1995)

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Director: Tony Scott

Stars: Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini

The acutely tense atmosphere of this wartime thriller can be partly attributed to the fact that it is set mostly within a claustrophobic submarine, but that is not to take away from Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington’s superb performances. A command comes to fire a missile, but the real battle is between the older, racist, arrogant Hackman and Washington, his second-in-command who, although more responsible, is entirely willing to stand his ground. Crimson Tide was also the first collaboration between Washington and director Tony Scott (the pair would go on to make other great films together such as Man on Fire and Déja Vu); it also marked the third successive highly successful film Washington was involved in, after The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia, which cemented Washington as a true Hollywood blockbuster star.

Cry Freedom (1987)

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Director: Richard Attenborough

Stars: Kevin Kline, Penelope Cruz, Denzel Washington

In Cry Freedom, Washington plays the outspoken South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who Nelson Mandela described as "the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa." Biko was murdered in 1977, which happens about halfway through the film. The movie is kinetic and alive when Washington is on screen delivering his elegant and committed performance as Biko, but after he is murdered, the rest of the movie is about Biko’s white journalist friend trying to tell his story to the world. Kevin Kline is ultimately unequipped to fill the gaping hole that Washington leaves behind, a hole that Washington received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy.

The Mighty Quinn (1989)

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Director: Carl Schenkel

​Stars: Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, James Fox, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh

The Mighty Quinn is perhaps Washington’s first true breakout role because it’s a perfect showcase of what makes Washington such a remarkable actor. It’s a kind of mashup between a murder mystery and police thriller in which Washington plays a Caribbean police chief investigating a murder that is being pinned on his best friend, but it is Washington’s suave confidence and overflowing charisma that make this movie a must-watch.


Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

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Director: Keneth Branagh

Stars: Keneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves

On the heels of his Oscar-winning performance as Malcolm X, Washington decided to try something totally different for his role as Don Pedro in this lively Kenneth Branagh adaptation of a classic Shakespeare comedy. It’s one of Shakespeare’s silliest plays, and Washington gives a solid performance as a the honorable Aragonian prince who plays matchmaker to pass the time while bickering with his half brother (played, rather hilariously, by Keanu Reeves). It might be Washington’s most light hearted role on this list—indeed, the silliest movie on this list—but that only proves his vast range.

American Gangster (2007)

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Glory (1989)

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Training Day (2001)

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Philadelphia (1993)

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Director: Jonathan Demme

​Stars: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas

Released at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Philadelphia was the first major Hollywood movie to acknowledge the epidemic and explore issues of homophobia. Philadelphia is, at its heart, a courtroom drama, and Washington plays a homophobic lawyer tasked with representing Tom Hanks, a man with AIDS who is suing his former employer for wrongful termination. It’s a deeply emotional movie that demands a lot of its viewers, but also its actors: Hanks won an Oscar for his performance, but Washington was in a trickier position and still manages to give a complex and powerful portrayal of a man forced to face his deepest prejudices.

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