As towering as Denzel Washington’s on-screen achievements are, he may end up having a bigger influence behind the scenes.
Start with his most ambitious plan: filming the entirety of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays depicting life in 20th-century America. Washington already starred in and directed “Fences,” earning an Academy Award for co-star Viola Davis, who also plays the title role in the next one, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” due from Netflix this year and coproduced by Mr. Two-Time Oscar Winner. Although the huge project has moved around a bit, Netflix is where the eight other plays are expected to land. Several of them offer juicy parts perfect for Washington.
Then, look at the actors he has mentored. Washington has championed Davis, both on stage and film. He and Phylicia Rashad paid for several actors to attend a prestigious training program in London, and one of them was “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, who saluted Washington’s efforts several times. The late Boseman (considered a likely posthumous Oscar nominee for “Ma Rainey”) brought tears to his mentor’s eyes at an American Film Institute tribute last year in which he said, “There is no ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington” and noted that he was not the only young actor whose career Washington nurtured.
Other protégés include Jovan Adepo, whose first feature role was as Washington’s son in “Fences” and who has worked nonstop ever since, recently in HBO’s “Watchmen.” Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker both had key film roles in “The Great Debaters,” which Washington directed (Minneapolis’ Kimberly Elise is in it, too). And Washington’s longtime support of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America affects untold numbers of lives.
You could say the same about the inspiring, Oscar-nominated documentary “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.” Coproduced by Washington, it sheds light on the racism, threats of physical violence and resistance from owners the slugger faced on the way to setting a 46-year-old home run record that, depending on how you feel about Barry Bonds’ tainted career, some say still stands.
On screen, he’s best known for playing men of dignity and conviction, but Washington also is capable of using our expectations to bring unexpected layers to performances, as he has done playing the tortured bad guy in “Training Day” and will likely do in his upcoming “Macbeth,” opposite Frances McDormand. Unlike other big-time actors, he works a lot, generally making two movies a year and often throwing in a Broadway run, to boot.
If there’s a flaw in his résumé, it’s that he tends to be attracted exclusively to dark, R-rated material, and although he has a way with a tossed-off remark, he almost never makes comedies (starting with his debut, “Carbon Copy,” he has done three and none are very good).
Washington has told interviewers he is always on the lookout for a funny script, so he may rectify that laugh deficit at some point. Meanwhile, he has given us a ton of great work.
I can’t think of another actor who has supported Black filmmakers as consistently as Washington, and that includes my favorite of his movies. Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, “Eli” is a post-apocalyptic puzzle box of a drama that features one of Washington’s sparest performances. There’s a bit of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in his title character, who mostly interacts with his own iPod. Criminally underrated, “Eli” is both a great yarn and a master class in how to keep an audience riveted with tiny shifts in behavior and emotion.
The actor has played a number of real-life people, also including boxer Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane,” and in these movies the actor tends to be better than the material. That’s true here, where you sense director Spike Lee chafing at having to hit the stations of the cross of a standard biopic. But there’s no faulting Washington’s galvanic performance, which may be even better in the quiet, family moments than when he’s capturing the title character’s thundering orations. One of the more thrilling aspects of the film is how Washington’s own appearance seems to change when Malcolm Little drops his birth name and assumes the name Malcolm X.
When former Mixed Blood Theatre actor Don Cheadle came to town to promote this stylish, neo-noir mystery, based on a novel by Walter Mosley, he discussed how much he learned about film acting from Washington. He brings wit, glamour and sex appeal to Mosley’s detective, Easy Rawlins. In a more perfect world, the movie would have been a hit and we’d be in the middle of a James Bond-like series of Easy Rawlins movies. You can find “Devil” in its entirety on YouTube but be aware that its images are flipped.
Technically, Matthew Broderick is the star of this Civil War drama, but it’s Washington’s principled soldier who sticks with you after the movie is over. Maybe that’s why the trailer bizarrely says the movie “introduces” Washington, who had already starred in the TV series “St. Elsewhere” and made half a dozen movies, including his Oscar-nominated performance as Steve Biko in “Cry Freedom.”
The received wisdom is that Washington’s best actor Oscar for this police procedural-gone-wrong was to make up for his not winning for “Malcolm X” or “The Hurricane.” That sells short how seductive Washington is as a bad cop who becomes an even worse one as his influence extends to his naive partner. The movie moves like a fast-burning fuse and it is Washington who lights it.
Washington earned his eighth Oscar nomination for acting (he also got the nod for coproducing “Fences”) but the movie didn’t make much of a splash, which is too bad. It’s a snappy legal thriller (written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who made “Nightcrawler”) and the title role, an idiosyncratic lawyer, is a great showcase for Washington at his prickliest.
It’s tricky to be specific about Washington’s greatness in this melodrama because its surprises are best left for the moviegoer to discover. Let’s just say he’s wily and stoic as a top-notch detective but that he has a couple of big tricks up his well-creased sleeve.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367