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Denzel Washington’s Movies Ranked, From Worst to Best

From ‘Magnificent Seven’ to ‘Malcolm X,’ we break down every one of the star’s greatest (and not-so-great) performances

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Ever since Denzel Washington’s theatrical debut in the early 1980s, the actor has given some of the most incredible performances of our time across more than three decades: Who can deny his compelling work in films like Cry Freedom, The Mighty Quinn or Mo’ Better Blues? Or such Nineties classics as Malcolm X, Mississippi Masala or Crimson Tide? Or his brilliant later turns in movies like Inside Man, Fences and Flight?

Washington is the rare talent who can transcend — and usually improve — his material. He’s become perhaps one of the more reliably bankable movie star in Hollywood’s firmament, despite the fact that he generally avoids sequels and superhero movies. Watching and re-watching Denzel’s films — 48 of them, since 1981, and all of them big parts — you’re seized with a newfound respect for the man’s craft, talent, and passion in his performances. That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna rank them, however!

Here are all of Denzel Washington’s performances, from worst to best, the WTF to the downright brilliant. What an impressive body of work. (All blurbs written by Bilge Ebiri unless otherwise noted.)

From Rolling Stone US


‘Crimson Tide’ (1995)

The actor’s first collaboration with director Tony Scott is the best film they made together – a breathtakingly exciting nuclear thriller pitting sadistic submarine captain Gene Hackman against his rational, responsible second-in-command (two guesses). This is a great “guy” movie, pitting the by-the-book superior against the self-sacrificing, morally upstanding upstart. The two actors have a grand old time facing off against one another, and director Scott’s high style, playing up the claustrophobia of the sub, matches for all the macho bluster on display to a tee.


‘Inside Man’ (2006)

Spike Lee’s hit crime flick is more than a suspenseful crime drama – it’s a love letter to New York. It’s also a surprisingly powerful demonstration of Denzel Washington’s incredible range. When a group of criminals take a bank-full of hostages, a troubled NYPD detective Keith Frazier tries to negotiate the release. In fact, the whole movie is a series of negotiations – Frazier talks not just to the crooks, but also to the small army of onlookers, political officials, a mysterious fixer (Jodie Foster), and, via a series of flash-forwards, hostages after they’ve been freed. Sometimes he’s a bad cop, sometimes he’s chummy, sometimes he’s deferential. But all the while he keeps his cool, even as the situation around him becomes more desperate. It’s prime Denzel.


‘Mississippi Masala’ (1992)

In one of his sexiest performances, Washington is an enterprising Mississippi carpet cleaner who falls for Sarita Choudhury’s independent-minded Indian immigrant. Mira Nair’s lush, heartfelt romance glows with humanity and desire; it puts the “passion” back in “compassion.” Denzel navigates his character’s journey – from a handsome, cool, and even slightly smug business owner to hopeless romantic – with loads of magnetism, and he and Choudhury have incredible chemistry together. Even their phone conversations smolder.


‘Fences’ (2016)

Washington had already won a Tony for playing Troy Maxson, the towering patriarch at the center of August Wilson’s play about black life in the 1950s, on Broadway in 2010; when it came time to bring this Pulitzer-prizewinning play to the screen, Denzel would end up doing double duty as an actor and a director as well. And from the moment Washington regales us with a tall tale of fighting Death to a draw, you can see how he’s building up Wilson’s working-class everyman into someone bigger than life. Maxson is a man with “more stories than the devil has sinners” — a 1950s sanitation worker who loves a good yarn, a nip of booze and his beautiful, rock-of-Gibraltar wife Rose (Oscar-winner Viola Davis). He’s also spiritually broken, suffering from a bad past, personal insecurities and the slings and arrows of being a black man in Eisenhower’s America. It’s a lot, in other words. But to watch Washington recalibrate his Troy camera instead of a crowd is to see him plumb the depths of a great theatrical role. He gives you the character’s every triumph and tragedy, the disappointments and regrets and the moments of joy, the sense of someone hiding pain and rage beneath a lot of bluster. And his exchanges with his costars (notably Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jovan Adepo) is like a masterclass in give-and-take acting. Even when the film begins to bump up against its roots as a play, Washington’s performance never feels stagy. It’s a great actor interpreting a great writer’s work and inhabiting it at the same time. DF


‘Flight’ (2012)

The actor gives one of his greatest performances as Whip Whitaker, a pilot whose heroic exploits during a plane crash wind up inadvertently revealing the extent of his drug and alcohol addiction. Outraged that anyone would dare question his actions after he’s saved hundreds of people, Whip slips further and further into anger and resentment. It’s a role that requires an impressive range, as our hero goes from confidence to denial to fear to devastation. For all the film’s amazing effects and tension – director Robert Zemeckis stages the plane crash with heart attack-inducing suspense – the real drama of this story plays out on Denzel’s face. He is simply amazing.


‘Mo’ Better Blues’ (1990)

Not everybody knew what to make of Spike Lee’s jazz drama, about a talented but self-absorbed trumpeter split between two women and unwilling to compromise. (It was the director’s follow-up to Do the Right Thing, and a lot of people were still expecting Angry Spike.) Today, however, the film looks like a near-masterpiece: an epic meditation on love, lust, art, and friendship, all anchored by Washington’s marvelously sensual performance. The musician is a great talent, but he’s also a dog – and the actor lets us see and feel the charisma as well as the hypocrisy. Plus he also absolutely commands the stage during those rambling, improvisatory jazz numbers, in which he assumes different postures, voices, and rhythms with almost shamanic grace. This is the loosest Washington has ever been: It’s a startlingly alive and in-the-moment performance, a perfect match for a man living (and losing himself) in the now.


‘Training Day’ (2001)

The film that won Washington his second Oscar is still perhaps his best-known part. As the remorselessly corrupt LAPD detective Alonzo Harris, putting rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) through what at first seems like the world’s worst hazing ritual, Washington keeps us constantly uncertain as to his true intentions: Is he simply teaching Jake how to survive on the streets? Does he have something more nefarious in mind? That sense of never knowing where we stand with this character makes this a riveting, high-wire act of a performance. And when Harris finally does go totally over-the-top, it’s a turn worthy of Jimmy Cagney. In the modern era, one can’t imagine anybody but Denzel pulling it off. “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”


‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

This monumental performance as the slain civil rights leader in Spike Lee’s masterful biopic remains the greatest thing he’s done to date – a journey that takes in the man from small-time hustler to prisoner, preacher, leader and finally, martyr. But this Malcolm is a cumulative effort: At every stage, you see glimmers of the man he once was, so that he’s always in a dialogue with his past selves. (This isn’t just solid character work, but an actual theme in the film.) Lee and Washington are arguing that what made Malcolm so magnetic and powerful was his distillation of these many experiences – that he truly understood what it meant to be poor, dispossessed, and angry in the first half of the 20th century. The actor so thoroughly inhabits the part at every stage of these changes that, at the time, it was hard to think of him ever doing another movie after this. Amazingly, he was just getting started.