It was time for another entry in our Anthology series, and we finally decided to take on our biggest task yet. We’ve been bouncing around the idea of writing about all of Denzel Washington’s movies since we started this blog, but it always seemed too big of a task. You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor over the past four decades with a bigger resume of films that have been either commercially or critically successful – and oftentimes both. Tom Hanks certainly has more acting credits on IMDB – 92 to Denzel’s 58, but there’s a lot of junk at the start of Hanks’ resume – whereas Denzel ramped-up to quality roles quicker in his career and has been remarkably consistent. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his stinkers in there – which we will get into. He’s also been very versatile in the types of films he has made – from high-profile dramas with prestige directors to formulaic action films, and even some lighter romantic/comedy stories. Even at the age of 65, Washington shows no signs of slowing down, and his films to date have grossed over $4 billion worldwide – a pretty remarkable dollar figure since he has no franchises on his resume (no Star Wars, Harry Potter or Marvel films to be found) and has done just one sequel – Equalizer 2 in 2018.
I don’t know if we are going to get to all of his 58 acting roles, but we will definitely touch on all the major ones – those that were at least moderately successful and/or had critical acclaim/awards recognition. We figured the best way to break this up into readable segments is to go by decade, so here are the Denzel Washington films of the 1980s.
Carbon Copy (1981) – DJ
Denzel’s first major film role, they even gave him “and introducing…” credit. First of all, this movie could not be made today, at least not as a comedy, along the lines of the great C. Thomas Howell film, Soul Man. It has 80s film all over it. The film stars George Segal as a man working for his rich father-in-law and reaping the benefits of that deal. He comes to find out he has an African-American son played by Denzel from a past relationship. In the first 5 minutes, there is attempted spousal rape and racism, probably the reason this film doesn’t get many TV spots today. Denzel is really good in it, like a young Will Smith, you can see the promise that is to come. It’s got a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air mashed with Elf going for it and, at times, it’s charming and once in awhile funny. I enjoyed this film despite cringing all over at the not-made-for-2020 viewing. The 80s were a different time. It also stars a pre-Kate & Allie, Susan St. James as the shrewish, completely racist wife. The music from Bill Conti is rough as well. I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are a Denzel completist and want to see his start or you want to see a time capsule of a politically incorrect film.
MG: I haven’t seen this, but the poster you included here is pure 80s nonsense.
St. Elsewhere (1982 – 1988) – Mike G.
It’s not a film, but we’d be remiss not to mention Denzel’s first real acting breakthrough. I watched a few episodes when it was on, but I was at more of an “A-Team” age, so it didn’t really capture my attention. Denzel was not one of the main actors in the series, but in the role of Dr. Philip Chandler, he did manage to distinguish himself from the rest of the large ensemble cast. He was one of the only African-American actors to appear in all six seasons of the show. I would imagine it wasn’t always easy advocating for his character amongst a predominantly white cast and crew in the early 80s, but he laid a great foundation for his film career with that show.
DJ: I liked this show quite a bit, I can’t say that I liked it enough to have watched every episode and I believe it had the 10:00 block so staying up wasn’t always an option. The characters were good, I feel like I don’t remember Denzel as much as the other characters. Not sure if it’s me or if they didn’t give him enough to do.
A Soldier’s Story (1984) – DJ
This film is one of the best, based on a stage play and directed by Norman Jewison, a completely underrated director. This film, which does not get the notice it should, was a true “African-American story” made in the 80s. Harold Rollins Jr. was fantastic as the lawyer-officer from JAG investigating the murder of a tough unlikable sergeant played by Adolph Caesar in a remarkable performance. Washington is a supporting player as suspect Private Peterson. The backdrop is WWII in an all African-American unit. It’s tense with very strong performances. I remember seeing it in the 80s and loving it and it holds up today.
MG: While it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, perhaps since the 80s, I remember really liking this film and being moved by it. This film was one of the first “true dramas” that I watched on video, as I had been mostly only interested in the Indiana Jones/Star Wars-type fun, action films. I did take note of Denzel’s performance, and that led me to some of the bigger roles he would have in a few years.
Hard Lessons: The George McKenna Story (1986) – Mike G.
Believe it or not, you can find this made-for-TV film currently on Netflix (one of the few Denzel Washington films on the streaming service). I expected bad things from this, and it starts out rough – with a classic 80s ‘urban beat’ soundtrack (by Herbie Hancock and sounding like “Rockit'” outtakes) and a montage of a school under gang control in the bad part of town. In walks Denzel as George McKenna, the new school principal determined to retake control of the school and make it a legitimate place of learning again. The script is based on a true story, and Denzel certainly raises the level of the drama with his solid performance. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is nowhere near his acting level and the script takes some oddly jarring turns without any explanation. Denzel’s charisma and the inevitable happy ending make this a decent film that won’t make you angry for watching it.
DJ: I liked it better when it was called Lean on Me or The Principal. It’s a very watered down version of true events. Like you said Denzel shined over everyone. It really wasn’t difficult to watch despite the weird plot holes and for a TV movie it was ok, just a cut above the ABC after school specials.
Power (1986) – Mike G.
I had never seen this film and watched it specifically for this post. I didn’t even know this was a Denzel film until recently. I recall this being promoted as a Richard Gere film, and it is mostly Gere and Gene Hackman that have the screen time, with Washington having a relatively small supporting turn. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s a story ahead of its time – focusing on the juicing of elections by highly-paid, behind-the-scenes “consultants” using the media, rumors, and excessive spin to promote the image of their candidate. Denzel does what he can with an underwritten role with little backstory. He plays it close to the vest, as a power player who might be shady, only allowing his emotions to boil over in one key scene close to the end of the film. Power is interesting to watch now as an 80s time-capsule, but it doesn’t give a Denzel Washington fan much to get excited about.
DJ: I have not seen this. I am surprised though that a Lumet film with Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, and Gene Hackman wouldn’t be more available and known. I know zero about this film but I am looking forward to getting to know it.
Cry Freedom (1987) – DJ
I am a big fan of this film. It really is more of a Kevin Kline vehicle than a Denzel film but Denzel’s supporting role of murdered South African activist Stephen Biko stands out. This was his first Oscar nomination, this one in a supporting role. It also stars Denzel’s acting with accents, see For Queen and Country, and The Mighty Quinn. This is a powerful film that takes place during the South African Apartheid. The white government had been trying to squash black free speech along with the rest of black subjugation. Biko, like Mandela, was trying to turn the tide that eventually did happen long after his death. This wasn’t a true Biko biopic and they carefully tiptoed around some of Biko’s vices. Sir Richard Attenborough like many other white directors chose to make the “white guy” the hero as Kline’s Donald Woods makes it out to tell Biko’s story. Now maybe that’s how it went, but we all know history can be complicated. Denzel deserved his nomination, he played Biko with a subtle style but with a powerful presence which he would use again later in Malcolm X. The end of the film is heartbreaking and brutal as we see the South African’s cruel retribution on its people.
MG: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, but I definitely remember liking Denzel in this as this may have been the first film I saw him in. I clearly recall the gut-punch of an ending as well.
For Queen and Country (1988) – Mike G.
Neither of us has seen it, and may never since it’s not available to stream on any platform. The film made less than $200k worldwide, so I guess that’s why it’s been relegated to the cinema landfill. I looked up the story on IMDB and it actually sounds somewhat interesting. Denzel plays a former British soldier who had a rough time of it being deployed in Northern Ireland and the Falkland’s War (who knew that one was so tough?). When he comes home to build a “regular life” he has to initially deal with a chilly welcome tinged with racism and then gets tangled up with a local drug boss, and at that point things turn violent. Roger Ebert’s review says that the first half of the film is pretty good, but the second half turns into a cliched revenge film. It is notable that although Denzel was very successful with prestigious drama films like Cry Freedom, Glory, and Malcolm X, he continued throughout his career to make more formulaic films in the action/revenge film genre. He never seemed overly choosy about the film projects he signed on to do.
DJ: I saw the trailer for this – the British accent is rough.
The Mighty Quinn (1989) – DJ
Of all things, a movie taken from a title of a Bob Dylan song familiarized by Manfred Mann in the ’60s. Far out. Here is Denzel doing his best Jamaican accent but he is not alone as Robert Townsend playing his friend Maubee also sports one. Denzel is a police chief on an unspecified Caribbean island and Maubee is wanted for murder. So he is charged with finding him, but did he do it, or not, that’s the film. This is not great by any stretch of the imagination and frustrating to watch at times. The film has no connection to the song other than they sing it with different lyrics. If you want to see Denzel sing, this is your film. This may be one of his worst performance, usually, he is the one bringing up the film, but he acts down in this one. It’s goofy at times and is sure feeling dated. The best they could get for supporting roles outside of Townsend was Mimi Rogers and M. Emmet Walsh. I almost forgot Esther Rolle from Good Times play some kind of witch doctor so the film does have that going for it.
MG: I actually think I saw this on video back in the day, but I have no recollection of it, even after reading your write-up. Doesn’t sound like a memorable story or acting showcase, so that’s probably why.
Glory (1989) – Mike G.
This is simply one of my favorite films, and would probably even make my top 25 of all-time. Where many war-themed films put a lot of focus on spectacular battles, often at the expense of character development, Glory does just the opposite. Matthew Broderick is good as the lead character of Colonel Shaw, but it is the supporting characters that really elevate the film, particularly the three roles played by Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Denzel Washington. As Private Silas Trip, Denzel starts the film as an escaped slave, filled with anger, who joins the Union army for lack of anything better to do. By the end of the film, Washington convincingly transforms the character into a dedicated soldier who believes in a cause and his comrades-in-arms. The scene midway through the film where Shaw orders Trip to be flogged is truly one of the best in all of cinema history. Without any words, Trip throws off his shirt, revealing his many scars, and sets his face into a stony stare. As the whipping continues, we see both deep anger as well as pain in his eyes, and that one tear that breaks free and rolls down his cheek says it all. It’s the scene that surely secured Washington his first Oscar, this one for Best Supporting Actor.
DJ: That is an iconic scene, and this is also one of my favorite films. He is amazing in this and absolutely deserved this Oscar. The whole cast is great. Probably the best Civil War film, sorry Gone With the Wind.