The 8 Movies That Defined Denzel Washington’s Career


by Stephen Holland | ScreenRant

Throughout Denzel Washington’s acclaimed and varied career, a few select films stand as vital moments that made him the actor he is today.

  • Denzel Washington’s career showcases his versatility, excelling in historical dramas, action films, and comedies.
  • From A Soldier’s Story to Training Day, Washington’s career is marked by powerful performances and impactful roles.
  • The Equalizer franchise solidified Washington as a blockbuster star, while Fences highlighted his directorial talent.

The career of Denzel Washington has been an impressive triumph that has seen him receiving major accolades and acclaim over almost 50 years in show business. A two-time Academy Award winner, Washington has excelled in action, comedy, and historical dramas and, in the process, became known as one of the greatest actors of his generation. From fruitful creative partnerships with filmmakers like Spike Lee to renowned movies where he even directed himself, Washington has consistently pushed the boundaries of his acting potential and continued to discover ever greater success.

Washington’s acting career started in the world of theater, but before long, he found success in Hollywood and quickly established himself as a leading man in artistic and compelling dramas. As a sternly committed actor, Washington excelled at portraying real-life historical figures, such as Malcolm X, and was simultaneously able to walk the fine line of maintaining a career as both an action star and a dramatic actor. Washington’s career was unmatched in its sheer variety and out of his many performances, a select few told his story.

8  A Soldier’s Story (1984)

Role: Private First Class Peterson

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Norman Jewison
Written by: Charles Fuller

While Denzel Washington’s acting career started in the world of theater, and he made his first Hollywood appearance in the 1981 film Carton Copy, it was in the drama A Soldier’s Story where he would take up his first prominent feature film role. Here, a 30-year-old Washington played Private Peterson in a compelling murder mystery based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller. A powerful performance, in this role, Washington signaled the arrival of a new powerhouse talent whose potential as a movie star was apparent right from the get-go.

7 Cry Freedom (1987)

Role: Steve Biko

Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Directed by: Richard Attenborough
Written by: John Briley (screenplay), Donald Woods (book)

Denzel Washington proved he had what it took to play a compelling leading man as the South African activist Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. Washington lost himself in the role of a real-life figure, much as he would do later in Malcolm X and The Hurricane, and, with a convincing South African accent, led this story about discrimination, political corruption, and the repercussions of violence. For his role as Biko, Washington gained widespread recognition and gained his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

6 Glory (1989)

Role: Private Silas Trip

Distributed by: TriStar Pictures
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by: Kevin Jarre (screenplay); Lincoln Kirstein and Peter Burchard (book); Robert Gould Shaw (letters)

Just two years after Denzel Washington’s first Academy Award nomination, he would take home the prize of Best Supporting Actor for his role as Private Silas Trip in the historical war movie Glory. Telling the story of early African American regiments in the American Civil War, Washington showcased himself as a talent capable of extremely powerful performances that address important issues of race, privilege, and those forced into conflict. Glory stood as an early example of Washington’s skill for choosing roles that were both compelling and rife with cultural, political, and social significance.


5 Ricochet (1991)

Role: Assistant District Attorney Nick Styles

Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by: Fred Dekker and Menno Meyjes (story), Steven E. de Souza (screenplay)

After already carving out a career for himself as an Oscar-winning dramatic actor, Denzel Washington proved his potential as an action movie star with his leading role in the crime thriller Ricochet. A nail-biting story of revenge, Ricochet was a thrilling game of cat and mouse that showcased Washington had what it took to stand among the biggest action stars of the 1990s such as Keanu Reeves, Nicolas Cage, and Will Smith. Following this action movie debut, Washington would expertly walk the fine line between appearing in critically acclaimed artful roles and over-the-top action spectacles.


4 Malcolm X (1992)

Role: Malcolm X

Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Alex Haley and Malcolm X (book), Arnold Perl and Spike Lee (screenplay)

While Denzel Washington had previously appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 musical comedy Mo’ Better Blues, it was as the lead of Malcolm X that the full potential of the pair’s creative partnership became fully apparent as he delivered a weighty portrayal of the controversial civil rights activist. Washington and Lee continued working together throughout the decades on He Got Game, Inside Man, and an upcoming remake of High and Low. Lee always brought out the best in Washington and their partnership has been one of the defining features of his career.

3 Training Day (2001)

Role: Detective Alonzo Harris

Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: David Ayer

It was in Training Day that Denzel Washington delivered his most memorable performance as the corrupt LAPD detective Alonzo Harris. Washington took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as the narcotics officer assigned to work with Officer Jake Hoyt during his first day on the job. Washington’s performance was raw and intense and the sinister self-interest along with the hypocritical misconduct of the police force was brought to the forefront. While Washington had already proved himself as one of Hollywood’s best actors, his performance in Training Day was electrifying that it was on another level altogether.


2 The Equalizer (2014)

Role: Robert McCall

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Richard Wenk, Michael Sloan (television series)

By 2014, it felt like Denzel Washington had already done it all, as he had countless classic roles in action, comedy, and intense dramas. However, one domain he had yet to conquer was that of the major blockbuster franchise, but this was radically changed with the release of The Equalizer. Washington starred Robert McCall, a former U.S. Marine and intelligence officer on a quest to help a young girl controlled by violent Russian gangsters. The success of The Equalizer led to two sequels and showcased Washington’s potential as a franchise star.

While there has been speculation about a potential fourth movie in The Equalizer franchise, recent updates indicated that Denzel Washington will not be returning to the role of Robert McCall for future instalments of the action franchise. In an interview with ET , Washington stated: “ This is the end for me. It may not be the end, they may do another one, but it’s the end for me .”

1 Fences (2016)

Role: Troy Maxson

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Written by: August Wilson, Tony Kushner

The career of Denzel Washington also included acclaimed directing work like Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and A Journal for Jordan, but the pinnacle of Washington’s more artistic side has to be Fences. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, Washington starred in and directed a universally acclaimed adaptation of Fences that felt urgent and relevant. Not just a filmmaking triumph for Denzel Washington. Fences felt like the natural progression of a performer who excelled in the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, and later an acclaimed turn in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Fences was nominated for four Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay.