With Denzel Washington’s latest film, The Tragedy of Macbeth (opens Dec. 25) starting to generate serious awards buzz, it’s time to start asking whether the 67-year-old two-time Oscar winner (and eight-time nominee) is the greatest actor working today. That may sound like a lofty claim, but a solid case can certainly be made. In fact, we’ll make it right here, right now, with the following ten reasons….
1. He’s very good at being very bad
The movie that proves it: Training Day
Washington earned his second Oscar statuette in 2002 for playing Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt LAPD cop and all-around nasty piece of business in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. As a narc gone to the dark side — and not even remotely repentant about it — Washington tries to seduce Ethan Hawke’s rookie into his crooked version of the law. Thanks to Washington’s charged, third-rail performance, what could have been a by-the-numbers crime-thriller, bristles with lip-smacking evil.
Watch it: Training Day, on HBO Max
2. Because of the hard-to-watch scene that clinched his first Oscar
The movie that proves it: Glory
Edward Zwick’s 1989 Civil War drama, Glory, tells the story of one of the more overlooked chapters of the conflict, namely, that of the all-Black 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. You’d think that costarring with Morgan Freeman, it would be impossible for anyone else to steal a scene — let alone give the most powerful performance in the film. But that’s what Washington does as Private Trip, a runaway slave who joins the Union army, never more so than during the excruciating sequence when he is flogged for insubordination. Study Washington’s defiant face during the scene and try to argue that anyone else deserved that year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Watch it: The harrowing, hard-to-watch scene from Glory on YouTube (Glory is streaming on multiple platforms.)
3. He’s just as impressive on stage
The play that proves it: Fences
Unlike most movie stars who line up a string of big movie-star paydays, one after the other, Washington is actually a trained theater actor who returns to the stage as often as he can. In the past decade, he’s appeared on Broadway in revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, The Iceman Cometh and August Wilson's Fences (for which he won a Tony). Washington felt so attached to that last role, a frustrated working-class father in the ’50s, that he adapted Wilson’s play into a Best Picture-nominated 2016 film, which he directed and starred in opposite Viola Davis.
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4. He’s got game in real life, too
The movie that proves it: He Got Game
While studying drama and journalism at Fordham University, Washington played guard on the school’s basketball team, where he was coached by the legendary P.J. Carlesimo. The actor would later show off some of those skills in his third collaboration with Spike Lee, 1998’s He Got Game, in which he plays a convict who’s let out of the joint so he can convince his estranged son (real-life NBA star Ray Allen) to take a basketball scholarship in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Watch it: Check out Washington playing some very hands-on defense in this YouTube clip from He Got Game. (He Got Game is streaming on multiple platforms)
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5. He’s got a work ethic that matches his range
The movie that proves it: Philadelphia
You could almost pull any year at random, but for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at 1993. In that 12-month period, Washington released three (three!) films that couldn’t have been more different: Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the slick John Grisham thriller The Pelican Brief and Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, arguably the first mainstream Hollywood film to wrestle with the AIDS crisis head-on. Needless to say, Washington is excellent in all of them.
Watch it: Philadelphia, on Amazon Prime
6. He can give an amazing performance even in bed
The movie that proves it: The Bone Collector
Sometimes when folks talk about great actors they’ll say, “I would listen to him/her read the phone book.” Well, not far off from that is an actor so consistently mesmerizing that we would pay to watch them in a movie where they are in bed throughout most of the film. And that’s exactly what Washington does in 1999’s The Bone Collector, a taut procedural about a quadriplegic former homicide detective and his partner (Angelina Jolie) tracking a serial killer terrorizing New York City. Washington knows that not every film he’s in has to win an Oscar (or even win over critics), but in The Bone Collector he knows how to juice up some pulp … even from bed.
Watch it: This tense steam-pipe scene from The Bone Collector on YouTube (The Bone Collector is streaming on multiple platforms)
7. Even his movies that people haven’t seen are fantastic
The movie that proves it: 2 Guns
One of the most satisfying movies from 2013 was one that almost no one saw. It’s one of those films that you can’t stop constantly telling people about because you want to convert the world to your side. I’m talking about director Baltasar Kormakur’s buddy crime-caper 2 Guns. Washington and Mark Wahlberg team up as bantering undercover agents posing as drug dealers to nab a cocaine kingpin (Edward James Olmos). Full of fun twists you don’t see coming and goosed along by an Elmore Leonard vibe, 2 Guns is buried treasure featuring two A-list stars who know they’re in a B-movie.
Watch it: 2 Guns, on Amazon Prime
8. As a director, he hit a home run his first time at the plate
The movie that proves it: Antwone Fisher
Just about every actor thinks they can direct, but few manage to do it, never mind actually be any good at it. Well, Washington proved to be a natural, knocking it out of the park on his very first try with 2002’s Antwone Fisher. A powerful three-hankie drama, this tearjerker stars a then-unknown Derek Luke as a young Navy man who is forced to see a psychiatrist (Washington) and his troubled past slowly begins to spill out. Rarely are debuts behind the camera this assured. Since then, Washington has directed infrequently, but when he does, it’s an event.
Watch it: Antwone Fisher, on Amazon Prime (and put a box of Kleenex in your shopping cart while you’re there)
9. He can even do Shakespeare … lots of it
The movie that proves it: Much Ado About Nothing
We all know that Washington is one of Hollywood’s most versatile performers, but few know that he’s also very much at home with the Bard. One of his first big stage performances was a 1979 off-Broadway production of Coriolanus. Since then, he’s performed in Richard III at the Public Theater and as Brutus in a 2005 Broadway version of Julius Caesar. Since plays are hardly available to stream, why not check him out in this scene from Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 movie version of Much Ado About Nothing?
Watch it: Much Ado About Nothing, on YouTube (Much Ado About Nothing is streaming on multiple platforms)
10. Because apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
The movie that proves it: Malcolm X
If you’ve seen Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman or Christopher Nolan’s Tenet then you know that old saying “Like father, like son” is true when it comes to Washington’s son, John David Washington. Talent runs in the genes. The younger Washington is now a bona fide second-generation movie star, but few know that his first role came in his dad’s blistering biopic Malcolm X, in which the younger Washington plays a student in a Harlem classroom. Granted, it’s a real blink-and-miss-it turn, but who needs an excuse to check out such a great movie featuring two Washingtons for the price of one?
Watch it: Malcolm X, on HBO Max
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.