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Denzel Washington Has a Range Like No Other — See Our Ranking of His 10 Best Movies

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We’ve seen Denzel Washington play a doctor, a vigilante, a crooked cop, a celebrated high school football coach and more — and luckily for us, the movies just keep on coming. But what is it about the 69-year-old actor that pulls us in each and every time?

Take The Equalizer series, for example: Very few actors manage to somehow be comforting in the same movie that they’re committing violent acts of vengeance in — but if anyone can, it’s Denzel!

The Mount Vernon, New York-born actor got his start on the stage before taking to the screen in 1977 in the television film Wilma. His career took a turn when he landed a role in the medical drama St. Elsewhere, and from there, his career has only flourished.

Related: Paging All Medical Drama Lovers: Catch Up With the ‘St. Elsewhere’ Cast 40+ Years Later

Denzel Washington, St. Elsewhere, 1982
Denzel Washington, St. Elsewhere, 1982Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

10 best Denzel Washington movies, ranked

Here, take a look at our 10 favorite Denzel Washington movies from over the years — do your favorites make the list?

10. Philadelphia (1996)

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer at a Philadelphia firm, who hides his identity as a gay man living with AIDS. When a colleague notices a lesion on his skin, a sign of his condition, a series of events leads him to be terminated shortly thereafter.

Related: Tom Hanks Through the Years: 27 Rare Photos of the ‘Nicest Guy In Hollywood’

Suing his employer for discrimination, Beckett is unable to find a lawyer that is willing to represent him. He eventually teams up with Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a lawyer who initially meets Beckett with prejudice, to fight back against his wrongful dismissal.

9. American Gangster (2009)

In American Gangster, Denzel Washington puts aside the good-guy, hero persona we love to see him in to instead play Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug dealer whose rapid rise in power and influence in New York City makes him a target for police officer Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).

When asked what it was that drew him to his character, Washington told Rotten Tomatoes in 2007, “Actually, it was as much about the two characters. That one man appears to be so straight and honest in his police work is so dishonest in his private life. Another man who seems to be so dishonest in his work life is so honest in his private life. And how these two guys came together and actually, to this day, are still friends.”

8. Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man sees Denzel Washington as a detective who goes head to head with a skilled bank robber, who is overseeing a massive heist with a number of hostages in possession. All the while, the chairman of the bank has hired his own backup (Jodie Foster) to retrieve something of great importance hidden within the bank.

Related: Jodie Foster Reflects on Her Storied Career and Teases ‘True Detective: Night Country’

7. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Denzel Washington leads this cast as Easy Rawlins, an unemployed man who is down on his luck, in need of money to pay his mortgage, and has few job prospects to solve his problem.

One night, he’s approached by man named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) who enlists his help to find a missing woman who may be seeking refuge in one of the city’s jazz clubs. In need of money and a job, Easy Rawlins accepts, only to learn that there’s much more at play than he initially imagined.

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

This modern adaptation puts Denzel Washington as the title character of Macbeth, a Scottish lord who is informed by three witches that he is destined to be king. To make this prediction a reality, he, with the help of his wife (played by Frances McDormand), will go to whatever extremes necessary.

When asked if he was attracted to Shakespearean roles when he was starting out as an actor, Denzel Washington told W Magazine, “The second role I played in college was Othello. I was 20 or 21. With this Macbeth, I think it’s interesting to have an older couple play the parts. There’s a desperation. There’s a finality.”

5. Fences (2016) Denzel Washington movies

Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh sanitation worker whose past affects the events and choices of the present, for both he and his family. His son, Cory, has a chance of progressing his football career.

Troy, who could have played pro baseball if he wasn’t too old by the time the MLB started admitting black players, projects this missed opportunity onto his son, affecting his future.

4. Malcom X (1992) Denzel Washington movies

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Denzel Washington brought to the screen the story of controversial African American leader and activist Malcom X, taking viewers through his pivotal life events such as his imprisonment, religious discovery, and eventual assassination.

3. Crimson Tide (1995)

Alarmed at the threat of a potential Russian missile strike, the United States deploys the nuclear missile sub, the USS Alabama. Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) enlists the help of Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) as his executive officer, a man who is well-versed in military tactics, but has very little real-life experience in combat. The two men clash in their approach, as Captain Ramsey is in favor of a far more aggressive response to the situation.

2. Glory (1989) Denzel Washington movies

Matthew Broderick stars as Col. Robert Shaw, leading the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-African-American regiment in the United States. Apart of this unit is Trip, played by Denzel Washington, who is an escaped slave, also fighting alongside Hollywood greats like Morgan Freeman. For his role in the film, Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

1. Training Day (2001)

This quintessential crime thriller stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays rookie cop Jake Hoyt, who must endure a “training day” alongside seasoned Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). What he doesn’t realize prior to this journey is that Harris has his own unorthodox way of doing things — which ultimately leads the duo into murky waters.

Related: Young Ethan Hawke: A Look Back On the Actor’s Rise In the Hollywood Ranks

When asked about working with Denzel, Ethan Hawke said in an interview with The Ringer: “…He’s an amazingly confident man. He knows who he is, and he fills the room, and he knows what he wants, and he expects a lot from other people. I worked with him again on The Magnificent Seven [in 2016]. I love working with Denzel. I’d love to work with him again. I mean, he’s great at what he does. If you’re some shrinking violet, it’s going to be a hard time for you.”

For his role in the film, Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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