MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #19 – DENZEL WASHINGTON
In all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about this feature, but will reignite it here. Essentially, I pick a favourite film actor or director or writer or composer or film craftsperson, who I have followed and admired for some time, and pick out five of their works which resonate with me. Usually it is difficult to stick to just five selections, however, I find writing with a rule or discipline sharpens the critical mind. Today’s choice is one of the greatest actors to have walked the boards, appeared on the box, and graced the silver screen. His name is of course, Denzel Washington.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York and having initially attended a military academy, Washington would later gain a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University. He began by acting in Summer Stock theatre, but his first major break was in the television series, St Elsewhere. His performances as Dr Philip Chandler would lead to castings in prominent film roles, notably as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987). In that film he would receive his first Academy award nomination. From then on Washington would go from strength to strength traversing stage and screen roles with incredible range and skill. As writer, director and actor he is an artist who can span genres and disciplines, equally brilliant in commercial projects and more arthouse productions. Here are just five roles which I very much think he excelled. But to be honest, there are many, many more I could have included.
Glory (1989) was the first major Hollywood film to profile the fight of black soldiers to free themselves from slavery in the context of the U.S. Civil War. It is an excellent drama with some brutal battle scenes and memorable characters. None more so that Washington’s portrayal of Private Silas Trip. He is quite understandably an angry man determined to fight all the way against oppressors. Washington delivered a searing performance which would earn him a Best Actor in a Supporting role award. It is an outstanding portrayal full of power and strength.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Washington worked with Spike Lee on many film productions and Malcolm X (1992), is arguably their most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever known. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work, and Washington’s intense performance stands as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
Washington has played his fair share of heroic and complex anti-heroes trying to find their way in the world, but in David Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day (2001), he revels in the role of bad-ass corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris. Washington and Ethan Hawke are both brilliant as the mentor and apprentice narcotics officers who are about to have a very intense day of plots and double-crosses. Washington spits and chews up Ayer’s meaty dialogue as Harris, who has a devilish plan up his dirty sleeves. Ultimately, the respect between the two erodes and a violent power game ensues with surprising twists ahead. Washington won the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, and while it was well earned, it was arguably more for his body of incredible film performances overall.
MAN ON FIRE (2004)
While not necessarily the best film on Denzel Washington’s amazing acting C.V., Man on Fire (2004) is one of the more memorable films he made with uber-Hollywood genre filmmaker, Tony Scott. Washington clearly respected Scott as a man and director, and while Scott’s flashy and bombastic style could drown his actors, Washington’s talent always shone through. As John Creasy, Washington’s characterisation is that of a broken ex-military man who has killed for his country, and now realised it was all for nothing as he lost and alone. Alcoholic and suicidal, Creasy finds redemption in the guise of a young girl, portrayed brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, who following her kidnapping, goes on a vengeful kill-crazy-rampage-search-for-justice. Washington’s acting is both muscular and tender in equal measure as Scott delivers an explosive genre film of the highest quality.
Denzel Washington’s honest, down-to-earth and heart-cracking drama is a formidable character piece and acting tour-de-force. Adapted from August Wilson’s prize-winning play, the narrative bristles with authentic working-class lives of 1950s Pittsburgh, and is littered with some wonderful stories and dialogue. At the heart of the drama are Denzel Washington’s complex character, Troy Maxson, and his long-suffering wife, Rose; portrayed with significant humility by Viola Davis. Troy’s character is charismatic, and he delivers some hearty yarns from his past, but he’s also bullies everyone around him. Moreover, Washington directs brilliantly, “fencing” in the characters to create a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. By keeping the players mainly in the yard and the house we feel as trapped as they are by society, social status and their life decisions. It’s an intimate film about proper characters and real lives and overall, the performances alone make the film feel cinematic.