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The Denzel Washington Compendium

The ‘Fences’ actor’s body of work is too big, too wide-ranging and excellent, to possibly be summed up in a single ranking. We did it anyway — along with nine other Denzel lists.

(Jason Raish)
(Jason Raish)

I watched Fences, the new movie (adapted from the August Wilson play) starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, over a week ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It started out slowly, the thinking. But the amount of time I spent doing so has only increased, as has my opinion of it. I watched it and as soon as it was over, I said, “Well, that wasn’t as good as I was hoping,” and so I thought about that for a bit, and let me be clear that when I say “wasn’t as good as I was hoping,” I mean that I’d gone into the theater anticipating Fences being a 95 percent great Denzel movie because of its excellent trailer and left thinking it was only 85 percent good.

Several hours later I had a conversation with another person who’d seen it, and our assessments seemed to sync up: It felt very much like watching a play on a movie screen, rather than a movie on a movie screen, and so it felt odd. I thought it had been a bit clunky, a bit overdrawn. But then the next day some scenes and ideas from the movie began to creep into my head again. Some of them were technical, like the way Denzel moved through different levels during each of his monologues with that waterfall force that only he can seem to conjure, or Viola’s soaring brilliance when she was told [REDACTED] and we all got to watch her whole life rattle violently for a moment. Some of them were less technical but equally impressive, like the way Denzel was seemingly able to bend the sunlight around his shadow, or the way Viola was able to coat every one of her words, even the tiniest ones, with 100 years’ worth of emotion.

I thought about the way they’d been able to disguise antipathy as love so well in parts of the movie, and the way love got rolled up into frustration in other parts, and the way frustration, if you sat still for long enough, began to look a little too familiar. And the more I thought about those things, the more I realized I was thinking about other things. This, I would argue, is a thing that only very good movies can cause you to do, and so I can say with confidence: Yes, Fences is very good. Very, very good. Very, very, very good, maybe. It is not the best Denzel movie, but it’s far closer to that end of the list than the other.

We should figure out exactly where it sits in the rankings, but we should also figure out other Denzel things, too, because talking about Denzel and thinking about Denzel and considering Denzel and even just saying “Denzel” is fun.

As a matter of structure, let’s go ahead and say that we’ll count or consider only Denzel movies that came after 1981’s Carbon Copy, generally regarded as his feature-film debut. That’s 47 movies to work through, two of which are TV movies. That seems like plenty.

Denzel Washington’s Top Five Weird Movies, Ranked by the Weirdness of Their Plots

5. The Preacher’s Wife (1996): Denzel plays an angel sent from heaven to help a man save a church, and also his marriage. Denzel falls in love with the man’s wife. She nearly falls in love with him, too, but then she falls back in love with her husband after Denzel blows a wind strong enough to knock him down into the snow. I’m not joking.

4. Fallen (1998): Denzel plays a police detective. He tries to defeat a fallen angel who is possessing humans and using them as vessels to kill other humans. Denzel tries to defeat the fallen angel by poisoning himself in a cabin in the woods, but the fallen angel escapes inside the body of a cat. I’m not joking.

3. Virtuosity (1995): A virtual-reality program comes to life and starts killing people. Denzel has to catch it. So basically what I’m saying is this is a movie where Denzel Washington has to fight Internet Man. There’s an MMA scene in it. I’m not joking.

2. Carbon Copy (1981) (above): An affluent Jewish man finds out that he has a long-lost black son. Denzel is the son. There’s a scene where they play 2-on-2 against another dad and son for money. Turns out Denzel is very bad at basketball, which is weird because he is black, the dad says. I’m not joking.

1. Heart Condition (1990): Denzel plays the ghost of a man whose heart is given to a racist cop after the cop has a heart attack and the man is killed in a drive-by. Denzel helps the racist cop find the person who killed him, but he also teaches him about black people. I’m not joking.

Denzel Washington’s Top Three Incidental Athletic Clips, Ranked by How Exciting the Moment Is When You Realize It’s Either About to Happen or Is Happening

3. When he goes for a jog in The Pelican Brief (1993). It happens briefly early in the movie, but it happens. He’s out running in jogging shorts and everything. We see him come down a street and then zip inside. The most important takeaway: Denzel Washington has far longer legs than you think.

2. When he dances in The Preacher’s Wife. It happens when he goes on a date with Whitney Houston’s character, Julia. In The Preacher’s Wife, he’s an angel who used to be a man who lived on earth before the movie takes place — so the gag in the dance scene is he’s doing only very old, now-uncool dances. The main takeaway: Even when Denzel Washington is being uncool, he’s still cool.

1. When he plays basketball in The George McKenna Story (1986). In The George McKenna Story, Denzel plays a high school principal. In the basketball scene, he happens across a student playing basketball in the gym unauthorized. He offers to play one-on-one against the kid for a wager: If Denzel loses, he says he’ll stop giving the kid such a hard time. If Denzel wins, he says he gets to teach the student how to read. Denzel wins. Later, the student gets shot and dies. The main takeaway: Don’t let Denzel Washington beat you in basketball, because you’ll die later. Ray Allen knew that.

Denzel Washington’s Top Five Idiosyncrasies, Ranked

5. When he hits someone with the Mood Flicker, which is when he switches from one mood to another in an instant without any real build-up or warning. He mostly does it in action movies, and it’s always cool there, but the most substantial one happens in Philadelphia (1993), where he plays a lawyer representing a gay man who’s been fired for being HIV-positive. A person approaches him in a drug store and says some nice things, and Denzel is very appreciative and warm, but then the guy saying nice things asks him out for drinks and attempts to pick up Denzel, to which Denzel responds by going all the way into monster mode. It’s alarming to see.

4. When he hits someone with the Big Smile. He does this in just about every movie. It’s wonderful. I promise I would give my life for every single one of Denzel’s teeth. (There could be a whole subsection on just the different kinds of smiles Denzel gives in his movies. There’s the Sinister Smile, the Sincere Smile, the I Can’t Believe What I Just Heard Smile, the I Feel Sorry For You Right Now Smile. Definitely an underappreciated version of it is the I’m Pleased With Myself Smile. The best example of that is the one he shoots across the phone to Clive Owen in Inside Man (2006) after he makes the piña colada joke.)

3. When he hits someone with the Cold Stare, like what he did for basically all of Man on Fire (2004) and American Gangster (2007), but especially the scene in The Equalizer (2014) when he sits down with Teddy, the main bad guy, before the final showdown.

2. When he hits someone with the Intense Interrogation, like he did to Petey in the Football Is Fun scene in Remember the Titans (2000). (The second-best scene in Fences is when he does the Intense Interrogation to his son. It’s a perfect Denzel scene, and I’m sure people will talk about that part of it, but it doesn’t work if the son, Cory, played by Jovan Adepo, isn’t perfectly pitched. He has to be respectful but also secretly a little bit defiant, which is hard to do but which Cory pulls off expertly.) (See, this is exactly what I was mentioning earlier. Fences is one of those movies where every time you talk about it you realize you actually like it more than you thought. I already like it more now than I did at the start of this article.)

1. The face he makes when he’s quietly but fiercely calculating things in his head. It’s the alpha Denzel idiosyncrasy. (The easiest example is the final showdown with Jake in Training Day (2001). He does it several different times there.)

Seven Denzel Washington Movies Ranked by Whether or Not His White Male Costar Is Mark Wahlberg

DQ. Ricochet, costarring John Lithgow (1991): John Lithgow is not Mark Wahlberg.

DQ. The Siege, costarring Bruce Willis (1998): Bruce Willis is not Mark Wahlberg.

DQ. Safe House, costarring Ryan Reynolds (2012): Ryan Reynolds is not Mark Wahlberg.

DQ. American Gangster, costarring Russell Crowe: Russell Crowe is not Mark Wahlberg.

DQ. Inside Man, costarring Clive Owen: Clive Owen is not Mark Wahlberg.

DQ. Training Day, costarring Ethan Hawke: Ethan Hawke is not Mark Wahlberg.

1. 2 Guns, costarring Mark Wahlberg (2013): Yes. First place. Of all of the movies here, this is the one with the most Mark Wahlberg in it.

A Good Denzel Movie That Is Secretly Bad

The Pelican Brief: It’s Denzel and it’s Julia Roberts, so that’s wonderful, but it’s also two hours of nothing really happening beyond them talking about a thing a person wrote, which is less wonderful.

A Bad Denzel Movie That Is Secretly Good

Deja Vu (2006): It’s essentially about time travel, and a scientist in it uses the phrase “warp the very fabric of space” while explaining everything in it, which is not that wonderful. But it’s Denzel Washington talking about time travel, which is truly fantastic. Denzel Washington is legit such an intoxicating and good and convincing actor that after the Explain This Time Travel Thing To Me scene (above) I for real felt like, OK, you know what? I think I actually believe in time travel now.

Denzel Washington’s Five Best Military Movies, Ranked by How Much Inner Turmoil He Experiences in Each

5. A Soldier’s Story (1984). Mostly a straight-line story for Denzel.

4. Antwone Fisher (2002). Denzel struggles with the fact that he and his wife can’t have children, which he reveals at the end of the movie during his final scene with Fisher, in which Denzel tells him that he inspired him to confront his own past.

3. Crimson Tide (1995). Decisions he made may or may not have directly resulted in loss of life.

2. Courage Under Fire (1995). Denzel is responsible for accidentally killing his friend during a nighttime firefight.

1. Glory (1989). An escaped slave joins the military to fight for an ideal he can’t yet believe in, but hopes for. (The most interesting sidebar when you’re talking about Glory is that it came out in 1989, which means that, yeah, people were generally aware of Denzel, but they weren’t all the way aware of how powerful an actor he was. So imagine you’re one of the other guys who landed a role in the infantry with him. You’re all excited to be in this big movie and you just know it’s going to be huge for you, then you get to the set and he’s throwing around so much charisma it feels like an anvil’s fallen out of the sky and landed square on your head.)

‘Training Day’ (Warner Bros.)
‘Training Day’ (Warner Bros.)

Denzel Washington’s Different Versions of Law Enforcement Officers, Ranked From “I Would Feel Perfectly Fine If This Person Pulled Me Over” to “Please, Dear God, Do Not Let This Person Pull Me Over”

10. Anthony Hubbard, The Siege: The most morally resolute of all the law enforcement officers Denzel has ever played. If you get pulled over by Anthony Hubbard, you can rest assured that all of your civil rights and liberties will be honored and obliged.

(Tie) 9. Easy Rawlins, Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): Mostly harmless.

(Tie) 9. Xavier Quinn, The Mighty Quinn (1989): Mostly harmless. (Also, he has an accent in this movie, which should be mentioned.)

7. Keith Frazier, Inside Man: Possibly a teeny, tiny amount crooked, though I can’t say for sure.

6. Matt Lee Whitlock, Out of Time (2003): I was surprised by how well this movie holds up. Denzel is great in everything, but he’s extra great in movies whose momentum tumbles out of his control, forcing him to figure out how to get everything back in a straight line again.

5. Doug Carlin, Deja Vu: Deja Vu is about a government agency that built a machine that created a wormhole so now they’re able to look back four days into the past as it happens simultaneously with the present (OR SOMETHING). At the end, Carlin uses the machine to send himself back in time to try to save the life of a woman who was murdered (and also 500-some-odd passengers on a ferry that was blown up). Anyway, the point being: Doug Carlin is generally a pretty good and decent person, but if you get pulled over by him there’s a decent chance you’re actually already dead, so that’s why he’s so high here.

4. Nick Styles, Ricochet: I like Ricochet because of how bad it is. For example, there’s a part where the bad guy, played by John Lithgow (lol), is getting ready for a parole hearing. One of the guards snidely remarks, “I hope you remembered to floss,” to which Lithgow responds, “I did … with your wife’s pubic hair.” Shortly after that, he tells one of the parole board members that, were he released, the first thing he’d do is go to said parole board member’s house and sleep with his wife, his daughter, and possibly his dog, too. That’s the kind of movie it is.

3. Parker Barnes, Virtuosity (1995): He seems like a nice guy, but you have to remember that he went to prison for killing the person who killed his family, which is a thing I understand but not a thing a cop should do.

2. John Hobbes, Fallen (1998): Lands all the way at second place here not because he is crooked or untrustworthy or even violent, but because he is being chased and tormented by a demon. I’m super not trying to come into contact with any demons.

1. Alonzo Harris, Training Day: Duh.

Scenes Where Denzel Washington Cries, Ranked

5. The “because I’m an alcoholic” monologue from Flight.

4. The scene in The Hurricane when he first arrives to prison and tells the warden he won’t put on the clothes of a guilty man.

3. When he meets Elijah Muhammad for the first time in Malcolm X (1992) and can’t bring himself to look him in the eyes.

2. The part near the end of John Q (2002) where he gives his son the goodbye talk.

1. When he gets flogged in Glory (above).

‘Fences’ (Paramount Pictures)
‘Fences’ (Paramount Pictures)

Every Denzel Washington Movie Since ‘Carbon Copy,’ Ranked

We have to do it. The way all these were arranged were by looking at: (1) Was Denzel’s role iconic? (2) Was the movie any good? (3) How much screen time was Denzel given? (4) Did Denzel have a powerful-enough person opposite of him? (5) How well has the movie aged, and how well will it continue to age?

  1. Malcolm X (It allowed Denzel to do all of the things he’s exceptional at, all at the same time.)
  2. Training Day (Has there ever been a better corrupt cop in a movie?)
  3. Glory
  4. He Got Game (The only Denzel movie with Rick Fox.)
  5. Mo’ Better Blues
  6. The Equalizer (There’s going to be a sequel to this, meaning that Denzel liked making this movie as much as I liked watching it, which makes me feel very good.)
  7. Fences
  8. Inside Man
  9. Flight
  10. Crimson Tide
  11. The Hurricane
  12. Philadelphia
  13. Devil in a Blue Dress
  14. Remember the Titans
  15. American Gangster
  16. The Great Debaters
  17. Man on Fire (The only Denzel movie where he kills a man by putting a bomb up his butt and detonating it.)
  18. Courage Under Fire
  19. Out of Time (The only Denzel movie where one of the bad guys he fights has played Superman before.)
  20. Fallen
  21. 2 Guns (Somehow there’s not been a 3 Guns.)
  22. The Book of Eli (The only Denzel movie where he’s secretly blind.)
  23. Deja Vu
  24. Safe House (The perfect midpoint Denzel movie.)
  25. The Preacher’s Wife
  26. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Remember John Travolta?)
  27. The Siege
  28. Unstoppable (I spent, like, three years thinking this was the same movie as The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.)
  29. The Pelican Brief
  30. Mississippi Masala
  31. John Q
  32. Antwone Fisher
  33. The Magnificent Seven
  34. The Manchurian Candidate
  35. Cry Freedom
  36. The Bone Collector (The only Denzel movie named after a guy from the And1 mixtape tour.)
  37. Virtuosity
  38. Ricochet
  39. The Mighty Quinn
  40. A Soldier’s Story
  41. For Queen & Country
  42. Power
  43. Much Ado About Nothing
  44. License to Kill
  45. The George McKenna Story (I want so desperately for us to have a proper Denzel As A Principal movie. He would be so great in that role.)
  46. Carbon Copy
  47. Heart Condition