Denzel Washington’s Best Performances: From ‘Malcolm X’ to ‘Macbeth’

“Denzel” — like Bono or Prince, the sheer mention of the mighty figure doesn’t require a surname. The industry-given mononym implies adoration and respect; yet in selecting the best performances of his career to celebrate the actor, director and producer’s birthday, narrowing such a body of work down is far more daunting than suspected.

My earliest recollection of Denzel Washington’s cinematic endeavors came with the action-thriller “Ricochet” (1991). He portrayed a cop-turned-district attorney being terrorized by one of his former foes, played by John Lithgow. However, I wouldn’t start to understand his talents until a high school teacher brought in a double VHS cassette copy of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992). After that, my outlook on acting was never the same.

Washington, 67, has a never-ending list of accolades. He has two Academy Awards — supporting actor for “Glory” (1989) and lead actor for “Training Day” (2001) — and is the most nominated Black actor in Oscars history. His other noms include “Cry Freedom” (1987), “Malcolm X,” “The Hurricane” (1999), “Flight” (2012), “Fences” (2016) and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017). Along with directing best picture nominee “Fences,” he was also one of the credited producers, making him the first Black person to be recognized for picture and acting in the same year. He also has a Tony Award for his turn in the August Wilson play of the same name.

It’s not just about acting with Washington, as he’s also been a consistent box office phenomenon worldwide, grossing more than $3 billion. His biggest hits have included “The Pelican Brief” (1993) with Julia Roberts, “Crimson Tide” (1995) with Gene Hackman, and his most financially successful feature, “American Gangster” (2007) from director Ridley Scott.

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Courtesy of Alison Rosa/A24

The holidays have brought a double-dose of Washington. First, he’s received critical acclaim for his turn as the Scottish noble Lord Macbeth in Apple Original Films and A24’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Directed and adapted from the William Shakespeare play by Oscar winner Joel Coen, the monochrome drama also stars Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Kathryn Hunter and Moses Ingram. Signs are pointing to him receiving his ninth acting nomination.

Washington also helmed his fourth directorial feature, “A Journal for Jordan,” from Sony Pictures. Based on the best-selling novel and adapted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams (“Mudbound”), the tearjerking drama stars Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams.

Read Variety’s list of his best performances below.

Honorable mentions: “Mississippi Masala” (1991) “Crimson Tide” (1995), “Flight” (2012)

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