The decency and devastating power of Denzel Washington, the greatest star of his generation

Denzel Washington in Man On Fire
Denzel Washington in Man On Fire - Alamy

This week sees the release of a faintly unlikely blockbuster, in the shape of the third in the Equalizer series. The pictures, based on the 1980s television series starring Edward Woodward, have all been modestly profitable (the earlier two have both made around $190 million worldwide on budgets of around a third of that), attract decent if unspectacular reviews, and generally fulfil a demand for an R-rated action film revolving around its charismatic male star: in this case Denzel Washington.

The Equalizer 3 transports the central character Robert McCall from the United States to southern Italy, but otherwise it’s business as usual; a great deal of inventive and well-choreographed violence, and the film depending for its impact almost wholly on its leading man’s considerable on-screen presence.

Washington, who is now in his late 60s, remains one of Hollywood’s most fascinating actors. At a time when virtually every one of his peers has taken the Marvel or Star Wars dollar, or has eagerly accepted the chance to appear in prestige television series, he seems entirely uninterested in appearing in films in which he has to play second banana. He is a star, and expects to be treated as such.

A supporting appearance in Gladiator 2, reuniting him with his American Gangster director Ridley Scott, might appear to be an exception, but as he was enticed with the promise of a “bad-ass role”, few would bet against him stealing the show in its entirety.

Yet while Washington, who has won two Oscars and been nominated for a further eight as both actor and producer, may view appearing in the Equalizer series as “his” overtly commercial franchise – in much the same way that Tom Cruise has associated himself with the Mission: Impossible films – he remains a rarity amongst contemporary actors, in that he is a consistently serious and weighty presence in pictures that both deserve his talent and those that do not.

Over the past few years, the successes – such as Joel Coen’s recent Macbeth adaptation and his third film as director, a 2016 adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences – have been remembered, while his missteps have been swiftly forgotten. If you didn’t see the 2021 serial killer drama The Little Things, a victim of post-pandemic release scheduling, don’t worry, nobody else did either. And for the few who bothered, Washington’s typically committed, intense performance as an obsessive detective far outshone the film that it was showcased in.

He began his career on the stage, to which he returns when he gets an opportunity – most recently in the central role of Hickey in a 2018 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh – and first attracted international attention when he played the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 drama Cry Freedom. The well-intentioned film was typical of its time (and its director) in that it had to tell Biko’s story through the eyes of a white South African journalist; in this case Donald Woods, as played by Kevin Kline, who was then a considerably better-known actor than his co-star.

Yet it was Washington who stole the show completely, being nominated for his first Oscar and attracting rave reviews for his Biko. It was no particular surprise that he won his first Academy Award two years later, for his powerful performance in the war drama Glory as a reluctant slave-turned-soldier, once again becoming the most watchable and dynamic aspect of the picture.

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X - Getty

Washington has always cited Sidney Poitier as his mentor and role model, and it is not hard to see Poitier’s influence in both his choice of parts and in his on-screen persona. Yet while Poitier played morally upstanding characters in such dramas as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Washington was always happy to take on more morally ambiguous roles, even in his self-proclaimed status as “Biography Man”.

If Cry Freedom and Glory had established him as a serious actor, in both senses of the term, then Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X made him a star. Whatever one’s thoughts on the subject, or indeed Lee’s film, there was no doubt that Washington’s layered and multifaceted performance as Malcolm, which never succumbed to simple reverence but continually questioned the political activist’s motives and methods, was its highpoint.

Inexplicably, he failed to win Best Actor at the Oscars, losing to Al Pacino’s ‘hoo-ha’-ing in Scent of a Woman; Lee spoke for many when he commented: “I’m not the only one who thinks Denzel was robbed on that one.” Yet Washington himself denied this, saying: “Well, I voted for Al Pacino. He was nominated eight times and hadn’t won. I was nominated three times and I had already won.”

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide
Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide - Alamy

At a time when the only other bankable black Hollywood stars were Morgan Freeman and Wesley Snipes (who often found themselves cast in, respectively, noble sidekick or undemanding action roles) Washington now began a one-man assault on the hitherto white echelons of the industry. It says a lot of his success that many of the roles that he took at this time, whether as Tom Hanks’s homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, his naval lieutenant in Crimson Tide or his journalist in the John Grisham adaptation The Pelican Brief, had originally been conceived as white characters.

But Washington’s innate charisma and charm meant that colour-blind casting – at a time when America was in a state of deep racial tension, after the then-recent Rodney King race riots – seemed wholly uncontroversial. Yet Washington also took care to play heroic, or at least redeemable, characters, perhaps mindful of his status as a role model for the black community. Like Poitier, he specialised in playing the kind of men who should be looked up to, even idolised.

This changed dramatically in 2001, when he played his first out and out villain, the flamboyantly corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day; the first of his five collaborations with the director Antoine Fuqua, the filmmaker responsible for The Equalizer series. The film, which has recently been re-released in UK cinemas, gives Washington a gleefully profane and scenery-chewing role, in which he blows every other actor off the screen, and duly won him his first Best Actor Oscar.

It was rumoured that Russell Crowe, the presumed front-runner for his role in A Beautiful Mind, offended Academy voters when he verbally abused a producer at the Baftas for cutting his televised acceptance speech short. Yet Washington deserved the award, in a part that has grown ever-richer with age. He refused to accept that Harris was a simple bad guy, and chided one journalist who asked him if he enjoyed playing villains. “As an actor in the theatre you’re taught that you never play a bad guy,” he said. “You have to love who you are. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m a bad guy.’ How do you play that?”

He has not played such a dark role again, not even in American Gangster, where he is suitably magnetic as the all-powerful drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Instead, Washington has specialised in high-class thrillers for the past two decades, often playing morally ambiguous characters, such as his alcoholic pilot in Flight or, indeed, his recent performance as Macbeth. He has also acquired a reputation for being one of the industry’s choosiest actors – hence the absence of Marvel and its ilk on his CV – saying “My career is based on saying no.”

Washington had a harmonious collaboration with the director Tony Scott, who he made a total of five films with. All of them were interesting – and many would argue that Crimson Tide is a masterpiece – but their most atypical work together was 2004’s Man on Fire, a bleak revenge thriller which starred Washington as an ex-CIA officer tracking down a kidnapped girl.

Denzel Washington with his Philadelphia costar Tom Hanks in 2002
Denzel Washington with his Philadelphia costar Tom Hanks in 2002 - Reuters

Forget Liam Neeson and Taken, this uncompromisingly violent thriller not only showcases Washington’s grimmest performance outside of Training Day, but it is hard to disagree with Christopher Walken, as Creasy’s former colleague Rayburn, when he declares “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” Underrated on release, it is now rightly regarded as one of Washington’s finest hours.

Washington remains his own man, not to be dictated to by anyone else. It explains why he has acted as a mentor to Will Smith – another actor who broke down colour barriers in his career – and continued to stand by him even after Smith’s violent outburst at the 2022 Oscars, reportedly telling him: “At your highest moment be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

Yet, four decades into an illustrious career, no devil seems to have appeared for Washington. His private life is a model of integrity; he has been married to his wife, Pauletta Pearson, for 40 years, has four children with her (including Tenet star John David) and is a practicing Christian who claims to read the Bible daily. He has deliberately steered clear of pronouncing on hot-button political and racial issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, although his 2021 comments, on police officers – “If it weren’t for them, we would not have the freedom to complain about what they do” were seen as an implicit rebuke to those who were championing the “defund the police” movements.

And remarks that he made in 2019, while promoting his film Roman J Israel that, “If the father is not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. I saw it in my generation before me, and every one since…if the streets raise you, then the judge becomes your mother and the prison becomes the home”, were widely seized upon by conservatives as suggesting that Washington was one of them.

Yet whatever his personal views, most would see that as irrelevant to the electrifying and varied performances that this great actor continues to give on screen. He may be a finer dramatic than comic actor – his forgotten 1990 comedy Heart Condition was a rare misstep, not least because of its borderline racist jokes – but he remains one of the few people who can still ensure that a film is worth seeing simply because of his presence within it.

The New York Times called him the greatest actor of the 21st century in 2020, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022, joining an elite group of performers that includes Tom Hanks, Robert de Niro and, inevitably, Poitier. While The Equalizer 3 is unlikely to be remembered as Washington’s finest work, it will still be captivating and endlessly watchable as long as he is on screen – just like virtually everything else that he has done.