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The Denzel Washington Morality Axis

From Alonzo Harris to Malcolm X, arranging the many characters played by the great actor on a continuum that measures moral code

A collage of images of Denzel Washington in various roles Ringer illustration

Denzel Washington is the greatest actor alive, don’t @ us. From the stage to the big screen, Denzel brings both gravitas and undeniable charm to all of his roles. Ahead of Thursday’s release of Roman J. Israel, Esq., we’re celebrating Denzel all day here at The Ringer.


Imagine a line extending from, say, somewhere on the left side of this page to somewhere on the right side of this page. That line, at least within the borders of this particular article, will function as an X-axis. But it will not just be an X-axis for an X-axis’s sake; it’ll be an axis of morality. More specifically, it’ll be the Denzel Washington Axis of Morality. On the left side is True Amorality, and then on the right side is True Morality, with all of the middle area serving as a gradation. So, picture in your head something like this:

100% Amoral ——66%——33%——0%——33%——66%——100% Moral

And the hypothesis here—or, the reason I’m mentioning it here—is that Denzel Washington is such a storied, exceptional, brilliantly nuanced, and skillful actor, that, over the course of his decades-long career, he has played a character that fits into, in essence, every major point on that Axis of Morality. It’s remarkable, really, and something that should be celebrated, so that’s what’s happening. What follows is an entry for each of the seven sections mentioned above, left to right, from all the way amoral to all the way moral.

100 Percent Amoral: Alonzo Harris, Training Day

It would seem that Frank Lucas, Denzel’s murderous criminal mastermind from American Gangster, would be the A1 pick for the 100 Percent Amoral spot. (And, in fact, you’re nearly right; he shows up for the 66 Percent Amoral spot.) But he loses out to Alonzo, Denzel’s crooked cop in Training Day, because of two main differences.

First, though, the similarities: Frank and Alonzo were both, through various mechanisms and schemes, complicit in the drug trade. (Frank was a large-scale operator for profit, while Alonzo worked its angles and gray areas for profit.) Frank and Alonzo both used nefarious tactics not only as a way to accrue power, but also as a show of it. (Good mini-examples for each: when Frank smashed the guy with the piano lid at the party to prove a point and when Alonzo assaulted the homeless guy in the alley to prove a point.) Frank and Alonzo were both wildly manipulative. (In their most underhanded moments, they would present what seemed like a choice to someone they were swindling, only to for it to be revealed later that it was a ruse and there was never really an alternative for the victim.) And Frank and Alonzo were both willing and capable killers. (Who could ever forget Frank shooting Tango in the forehead in front of everyone on a busy city block, or Alonzo shooting Roger in the chest and then watching him die under cover of darkness in Roger’s house after they’d just shared drinks and laughs together.)

So they have all of those things in common, but the ways that they differ, and the reasons that Detective Alonzo Harris is somehow more amoral than a proclaimed and open career criminal, are:

1. Whereas Frank operated under the strict adherence of a disciplined and outlined code (“The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work ...”), Alonzo only ever moved in whatever way happened to be the most beneficial for himself at any given time. It’s the whole reason for that scene where Jake is sitting with the Mexicans near the end of the movie and Smiley, their leader, explains that the reason he never shakes Alonzo’s hand is that Alonzo doesn’t respect anything. Codes are vital (even in the underworld—and perhaps especially in the underworld), and so the absence of one is proof of a supremely large level of amorality.

2. There was never one single instance in Training Day where Alonzo utilized his influence (or access to wealth) to genuinely better or help anybody, not even those closest to him, which was counter to the way Frank operated. Consider each man’s family: Frank outfitted all of his relatives with not only jobs and opportunity (remember him arranging a tryout with the Yankees for his nephew), but also living arrangements (he legit buys a gigantic mansion for his mother and all of the underling children to live in). Alonzo, however, operated on a different wavelength. With regards to his secret family, he has them squirreled away in a project apartment in a gang-ridden area, visiting only when beneficial to himself. And worse still, he uses his son as a chess piece during a shootout with Hoyt, which is the worst and lowest thing imaginable in that setting.

So Alonzo earns this spot, which is either a very big win or a very big loss, depending on how you look at things.

66 Percent Amoral: Frank Lucas, American Gangster

(See above.)

33 Percent Amoral: Whip Whitaker, Flight

In Flight, Denzel plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic, drug-abusing major commercial-airline pilot. He spends nearly the entire movie making bad decisions, the most tumultuous of which is an attempt to fly a full plane while drunk and also high on cocaine. When the plane malfunctions and begins to plummet toward the earth, Whip, in what can only be described as a miracle, somehow manages to land the plane upside down in a field, saving the lives of nearly everyone on board (six people die, including two crew members, one of which [Katerina] he was secretly romantically involved with).

While at a trial of sorts, Whip, who again is drunk and high on cocaine, is offered salvation: As it turns out, Katerina also has alcoholism, and so the investigator questioning Whip about the incident presents him with the scenario that it was Katerina who was responsible for the two empty vodka bottles that were found in the plane’s trash bin. (The investigator has no real idea that Whip had done anything wrong, and in fact, treats him as a hero for having landed the plane.) All Whip has to do is say that, yes, it was Katerina who drank the vodka and he’ll get to walk away free. But Whip, insta-overcome by guilt with the idea of blaming something he’s responsible for on a dead woman, finally comes clean. He admits to having drunk the vodka, and also to having been on a multiday alcohol-and-drug bender leading up to the plane crash.

In the following scene, which shows that he’s been sent to prison, we see him addressing a group of other prisoners, explaining everything. He says, “It was as if I had reached my lifelong limit of lies. I could not tell one more lie.” That’s an exactly perfect summation of someone who is 33 percent amoral; you’ve lived a mostly crummy life and done mostly bad things, but you’ve come to realize that absolution is available only to those who confront the wrongs they’ve perpetrated.

0 Percent Amoral/Moral: John Quincy Archibald, John Q

Landing at the 0 Percent Amoral/Moral point is, I would argue, the most difficult thing to pull off here because of the unique situation it took for you to get there. You have to:

  1. Be an obviously good person.
  2. Be forced into a bad situation.
  3. Have exercised all of your other options.
  4. Do a bad thing.
  5. Do a bad thing in what is revealed later to be a very safe way.
  6. Ultimately decide that you’re the only one who should need to suffer.

John Q is the only character who hits all of those marks. He’s obviously a good person (he has a loving relationship with his son, and also he attends his son’s baseball game, and going to a child’s baseball game is no more enjoyable than eating a box full of spiders). He and his wife are forced into a bad situation (their son ends up having a complicated medical issue, and John’s insurance has been cut because he’d been forced into part-time employment by his job). He and his wife exercise all of their options (they do everything they can to raise the money to get their son on the donor list, including sell off all of their possessions). He does a bad thing (taking control of a section of the hospital under threat of violence). He does so in a way that’s revealed later to be a very safe way (we don’t find out until the end that he didn’t even bother to load the gun because he knew he wasn’t going to shoot anyone). And then, at the end, he decides that if someone has to die for his son to live, it has to be him (he tries to kill himself). So all of the bad things he does are spurred by good intentions, but still, we can’t just ignore that he did a bunch of bad things, and so that’s how he ends up being at the exact center point of the DWAoM.

Sidebar: It’s so funny that, at the end of the movie, all the cops rush into the hospital to arrest John Q and, despite it being a 6-inches-shorter Eddie Griffin dressed up as a stand-in for John so John can stay in the hospital and make sure that his son’s surgery goes well, the police grab him up like, “Yup, this is the correct black guy,” and then take him to jail.

33 Percent Moral: John Creasy, Man on Fire

You’d maybe think, “How can John Creasy, a CIA burnout and drunk who kills countless people in Man on Fire, including one guy who he kills by putting a bomb up his butt, and another guy he kills by taping his hands to a steering wheel and then cutting off his fingers and then sending the car off a cliff, really be more moral than John Q, or even Whip Whitaker?” But the answer is simple: because John Creasy was killing bad guys in response to them doing bad things (in this case, they’d kidnapped a little girl that he’d come to care for). Killing people who are clearly bad and dastardly allows you to retain more of your morality than taking innocent people hostage, no matter how noble your reason for doing so.

Sidebar: You can for sure swap out Creasy for Robert McCall in The Equalizer, which is nearly the exact same movie as Man on Fire except this time the girl is older.

66 Percent Moral: Detective Keith Frazier, Inside Man

Three things here:

  1. Inside Man is a wonderful bank-heist movie, and Denzel, who plays a slightly-too-smart detective caught up in a too-deep-of-a-water-for-him scenario, is fantastic in it. (Clive Owen is the main heist bad guy.) The only real stench of amorality attached to Denzel’s name in it is a potential corruption scandal mentioned in passing that he asserts he is innocent of. Other than that, he is shown to be an intelligent, determined, good human. (He’s the only one smart enough to continue pursuing leads on the bank robbery, which eventually leads to him finding out that the owner of the bank is a war criminal, and defeating a war criminal is always very good for your morality score.)
  2. I always miss Clive Owen. I wish we got a new Clive Owen movie every six weeks. He’s just so great and mysteriously cool, even in movies that are snores, like The International, which was about a giant angry bank (or something). My favorite Clive Owen movie that doesn’t involved banks is Closer, mostly because of how unsettling and uncomfortable the scene is in it where he and Julia Roberts (also A+) get into a big fight about her having cheated on him. He pressures her into telling him all of the lurid details of her affair, and then after she does, he says, “That’s the spirit. Thank you. Thank you for your honesty. Now fuck off and die, you fucked-up slag.” When I watched it in the theater I literally gasped when he said it, in part because of how mean of a thing it is to say, but mostly because of how much true hate he packed into his words.
  3. Denzel Washington has played a cop/former cop or special agent/former special agent in at least 14 different movies. What’s more, he’s been an unbelievable variety of them. He was a paralyzed cop in The Bone Collector, a cop with an accent in The Mighty Quinn, a time-traveling cop in Deja Vu, a cop who was running out of time in Out of Time, a former cop fighting an actual web program in Virtuosity, and an active cop fighting a real and actual demon in Fallen, to run through just a few. If you want to include members of the military/former members of the military to that tally, then we’re up to at least 21 different movies, which is approaching half the total number of movies he’s been in, which is honestly incredible (The Equalizer, The Manchurian Candidate, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire, Glory, Antwone Fisher, For Queen & Country, A Soldier’s Story). It’s a testament to how strong and irrepressible Denzel’s essence is. (If you comb through his IMDb page, you’ll find that at no point ever has he been cast in a role that wasn’t, in one form or another, rooted in some form of power.) (The one possible exception is Carbon Copy, where he plays an illegitimate black son to a wealthy white man.)

100 Percent Moral: It’s a Toss-up

If we’re allowed to pick just pieces of a movie, then the right move here is to go with Post-Prison Malcolm X in Malcolm X. He was of an iron fortitude, and, opposite of Alonzo in Training Day, he was guided by an absolute code (also, and this is important: more than it just being a code of any sort, it was a holy code, which ups his morality score tremendously). If we’re not allowed to grab pieces of a movie character, though, and instead have to consider the entirety of a character’s existence, then Malcolm X loses out to Coach Herman Boone from Remember the Titans. Boone not only worked to defeat his football opponents (his team wins the state championship), but also he worked to defeat racism (he coached at one of the few desegregated high school in 1970s northern Virginia), tragedy (his All-American linebacker, Gerry Bertier, was paralyzed in a car crash following a big win), and conspiracy (the chairman of the school board had one of the referees attempt to rig a game so they could fire Boone after his team lost, but he’d made such an impression on assistant coach Bill Yoast by that point that Yoast forfeited his own entry into the high school football Hall of Fame in an effort to get the referee to not cheat). And he does all of that, every yard of the way, without ever compromising his values or his ideals—and that deserves a perfect morality score. (If, as a matter of consistency, you’d like to insert a fictional character here, as all of the other selected roles except Frank Lucas are fictional characters and Malcolm X and Herman Boone are not, then you can go with Denzel’s lieutenant commander Ron Hunter from Crimson Tide, who was as sturdy and airtight as the submarine he helped command.)