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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


‘The Hurricane’ (1999)

Never let it be said that the man is not dedicated to his craft: Washington shed 60 lbs. and underwent extensive training for the part of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight boxer who famously spent two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Even though his character spends much of the film locked in prison, the actor’s face and body seethe with emotion – anger, hopelessness, desperation, bewilderment, and sometimes even love. Washington does what he can to transcend the script’s awkward dialogue and liberal pieties; in return, he got a couple of genuinely amazing scenes and his fourth Oscar nomination.


‘American Gangster’ (2007)

This sprawling crime drama has Washington as the notorious Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who cornered the drug market in the Sixties and Seventies. (His secret: smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia in the coffins of dead American soldiers returning from Vietnam.) The film itself can’t overcome the pall of wan stylization that director Ridley Scott brings to it, but that’s not Washington’s fault: He does fine with Lucas’s stoic, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, and gradually allows the rage to slip in when things start to fall apart for him. Co-lead Russell Crowe is also quite good as the rumpled cop-turned-lawyer who brought Lucas down. It’s definitely a better pairing of these two leads than Virtuosity.


‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

Although many now regard it as a prime example of misguided 1990s liberal piety and condescension, Jonathan Demme’s AIDS legal drama is also, let’s not forget, an extraordinarily well-made film. As the homophobic, ambulance chasing lawyer who takes on Tom Hanks’ case of a hotshot attorney, Washington lends real personality and gentleness to a character who could have easily come off as a sleazy ignoramus. The actor never hits us over the head with his character’s transformation; this man somehow remains true to himself, even as he becomes more tolerant and righteous.


‘Courage Under Fire’ (1996)

An Army sergeant (Washington) investigate the death of a Huey pilot (Meg Ryan) during the first Gulf War, in order to make sure she deserves a Medal of Honor. He is effectively haunted in Edward Zwick’s Rashomon-like war melodrama. but wisely, the actor never overdoes the inner turmoil; he’s still a military man, after all. This is man who’s all low-boil fury and despair, driven to drink and obsess over his case. And then he makes that obsession our own. The power of this movie lies completely in his performance.


‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ (1995)

Who else could bring such genuine charm and casual professionalism to the part of author Walter Mosley’s famous detective Easy Rawlins? Entrusted to track down a missing woman, Easy finds himself drawn into an unexpected web of intrigue, murder, and political corruption. Washington laces his performance throughout with a sense of bewilderment – our hero is in over his head, and he knows it. But he persists. A standout: Easy’s hilarious interactions with his trigger-happy pal Mouse (Don Cheadle, a revelation), whose shoot-first-ask-questions-later ethos is as much a nuisance as a godsend.


‘He Got Game’ (1998)

Spike Lee smartly cast Washington to play this film’s former baller who’s briefly let out of jail so he can convince his estranged son/national high school hoops phenom (Ray Allen) to attend the prison warden’s alma mater. It’s a purposefully-ridiculous set-up, but the sensitivity Washington brings to the part of this wounded, torn man – with his combination of pride, resentment and shame – as he tries to reconnect with his son is overwhelming. Without his performance, the story might have been mired in absurdism; he turns this wild, overstuffed movie into something like a great humanist work.


‘Out of Time’ (2003)

Reuniting with Devil in a Blue Dress director Carl Franklin, Washington shines as a small-town Florida sheriff whose affair with a local married woman (Sanaa Lathan) leads him to do some pretty unsavory things – all of which blows up in his face when dead bodies enter the picture. Our hero becomes a different man before our eyes – from a cool, confident operator who can bend the law at will, to a desperate man who realizes he’s being framed. This is a great, underrated modern noir, and our man’s performance is one of the main reasons why.


‘Unstoppable’ (2010)

In the last film Washington made with his longtime director Tony Scott, he’s a veteran train engineer saddled with tenderfoot newbie Chris Pine as they struggle to stop an out-of-control freight train loaded with hazardous chemicals. This is a riff on the usual late-period Denzel formula: the solid pro who’s been at this job for too long, and who has to teach a younger counterpart whom he initially distrusts. And he’s very moving here, conveying both pride in his job and bitterness at the fact that he’s clearly considered replaceable by his bosses. Also the movie is ridiculously exciting.


‘The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’ (2009)

What is it with Denzel, Tony Scott and trains? In this flashy remake of the gritty 1974 New York subway-hostage classic, Washington plays a transit executive who’s been demoted due to a bribery scandal. He gets a chance to redeem himself when John Travolta’s flamboyantly calculating ex-cop and a team of criminals take over a subway train. Forget the often fragmented filmmaking and cacophony; Washington’s understated performance as a wounded man just trying to do his job works very well playing off against Travolta’s preening, baroque villain.


‘Glory’ (1989)

Most people credit that tear, silently sliding down his face while he defiantly endures a flogging, for winning Washington his first Oscar in Ed Zwick’s acclaimed epic about African-American soldiers in the Civil War. But as Private Trip, a rebellious and cynical runaway slave, the actor is electrifying from start to finish. He makes Trip’s contempt and his pain palpable – which in turn feeds his growing need to belong. Even though the man sows chaos, he also often seems to be the only person who sees things for what they are. It’s a star turn whether he’s a supporting player or not.


‘Cry Freedom’ (1987)

Director Richard Attenborough couldn’t quite do for martyred South African activist Steven Biko what he did for Gandhi with this apartheid-era drama, but don’t blame Washington. His Biko is wildly charismatic, playful, intelligent, even bemused – watching him as the legendary leader, it’s easy to understand why so many would be drawn to this man, and why the government would so fear him. So why, you ask, is so much of the film’s focus actually on the white journalist (Kevin Kline) who wrote the source material? (How much time do you have?) Kline, of course isn’t bad – but the movie basically dies whenever Washington isn’t onscreen. When he is, however … watch out.


‘The Mighty Quinn’ (1989)

Forget the Dylan reference in the title; Washington’s Caribbean police chief Xavier Quinn is a man whose trying to figure out if his best friend (Robert Townsend), suspected of murder, is guilty. The plot ambles along, and Denzel is the essence of laid-back professionalism as he deals with corrupt officials, grisly crimes, lustful housewives, and his own divided loyalties. It’s an odd, captivating little movie, with “one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight.” That was how Roger Ebert described Washington’s turn in this breezy, sexy policier. He wasn’t wrong.


‘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.