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Denzel Washington and the Art of Intimidation

When it comes to bringing people down to size, nobody does it better than Denzel

Denzel Washington wearing a suit and sunglasses in front of fire 20th Century Fox/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.


The thing about Denzel Washington is that he has been — owing to charisma, gravitas, and that thing he does with his lips — extremely himself in everything he’s starred in. The same, critic Zach Baron once wrote on Grantland, could be said of Tom Cruise, or anyone who is a “genuine, real-deal movie star.” I believe Tom Cruise once escaped from a Russian prison and attended an occult satanic ritual the same way I believe Denzel once landed a plane upside down sometime after he fought in the American Civil War. I also believe this scene — in Glory, in 1989, where he gets slapped by Morgan Freeman — was the last time that Denzel Washington was punked. To be fair, my memory gets spotty exactly one year after this and tends to be selective.

But I do know one thing for sure: Denzel has mastered getting inside people’s heads.

Now that we’ve established who Denzel is, let’s talk about who he is not. He’s not Samuel L. Jackson, who does deranged in a louder, less composed way. There’s more smoldering rage beneath Denzel’s words in these specific kinds of interactions than say, Benicio Del Toro at the dinner table in Sicario. He’s also scarier than the Rock, who is much larger, but incapable of the same menace. This is because physically imposing does not necessarily equal intimidating. But it is possible to be intimidating without being physically imposing.

Could Gerry Bertier, All-American linebacker, have taken coach Herman Boone one-on-one? Maybe. What matters is that he doesn’t think he can. And so Bertier becomes sheepish, contrite putty in Boone’s hands.

DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR DADDY IS, GERRY?

Gerry knows, and so does everyone else in that parking lot in Remember the Titans. They know what we all know: not to mess with Denzel Washington. Show me a person who has, and I will show you someone like Bertier, who regrets it.

I don’t know that there will be any interactions such as these — where Denzel Washington makes someone feel impossibly small and stupid — in Roman J. Israel, Esq. It won’t be released to the public until Thursday, and I’m not popping enough to have attended the Toronto Film Festival. But in case there aren’t, here are six more unlikely marks like Gerry Bertier, to remind you that when it comes to bringing people down to size, which occasionally means killing them, no one does it better than Denzel Washington.

Training Day

Mark Who Regrets It: Junkie Rapist Guy

The February 9 episode of the Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period podcast, whose name I don’t disagree with, featured Justin Cornwell, who plays a lead role in Training Day, the TV show on CBS. Naturally, he talked about Training Day, the indisputable classic film. Cornwell suggested that Washington won the 2001 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Training Day because Washington had spent the years before 2001 building up goodwill by cementing his role as a nominal Good Guy, which served to make Alonzo Harris’s habits and contradictions so rich and credible. “People can say whatever they want about the character,” he said. “But I feel like he won the Oscar because his body of work leading up [to Training Day], allowed that character to be who that character was.”

I, on the other hand, submit that the Oscar was won the second Washington clinked his two guns together — not one moment before, or for any other reason. One gun in your face is terrifying enough; two guns, doubly so; two guns being rubbed together like ginsu knives is grounds for pants-shitting.

I need to know if this was improvised. I also need to know if there were more, other cops who have tried reenacting this, and if that one doofus from Lake County was just the only one dumb enough to get caught. I’d hazard that the answer is yes, as that tends to be how things work here in America.

Safe House

Mark Who Regrets It: Matt Weston

Safe House starts in South Africa, which would have marked the second occasion on which Washington filmed there, had Cry Freedom (a film about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko) not been shot in Zimbabwe. In this scene, Ryan Reynolds, the super-green Matt Weston, says with only trace amounts of conviction that he is responsible for Denzel’s Tobin Frost, while backing away from his charge the whole time. Then Frost snatches Weston’s gun, destroys one of Weston’s ear drums, and says, “I only kill professionals.”

I don’t know about you, but at that point, just kill me. It would hurt less. I might rather meet God’s judgment unwittingly than be absolutely sure that he was laughing at me. Denzel Washington can open the wound agonizingly slow, or in this case quickly, but he never forgets to salt it. Ever.

By the way, let’s acknowledge exactly where everyone is standing when Frost first says “drop it.” Because this is not a time when someone should get to say, “drop it,” but he does anyway.

Universal Pictures

Frost, indeed.

Malcolm X

Mark Who Regrets It: Rudy

Another way Denzel used guns to put the fear of God in people: He played Russian roulette with them. This scene is from Malcolm X, a biographical film that follows the figure through different phases of his life and examines how aspects of his character cohere into the person who was eventually assassinated. In that sense there’s some pure exposition, and this is where we are taught that Malcolm X was, imperatively, the “head nigga in charge.” This lesson happens during a rundown for a robbery, from X’s years as a career criminal. X, or “Red,” works his way up to threatening to shoot off Rudy’s nose — Rudy is the flash new guy in the crew that talks just a little too big for his station — but so much happens before that, like when Denzel lines up the bullets and then licks one. Also, to be 100 percent accurate, the threat here isn’t quite a threat, and it’s more resolved and businesslike than a promise.

Honestly, it’s in the eyes. The scene is almost entirely a close-up of Washington’s face, and there are no tells of the distress any normal person might feel when their life, or death, is entirely up to chance. His voice stays precisely at conversational level. He doesn’t sweat, he smiles too much, he barely even blinks. The only crack in Denzel’s performance that I could find, in the countless number of times I’ve watched it, was that his right eye twitches, ever so slightly, with the first snap of an empty chamber. By the time he says the obvious, that he’s not afraid to die, you’ve already thought, at some length, about all the many terrible things someone like that could do to you should you come between them and what they’re after.

You’ll notice, when he’s doing his Biggest Dog In The Yard thing, that Denzel will often ask a lot of questions that aren’t really questions, but attacks on his target’s self-possession. Ones like, “That’s what you said, isn’t it?” and “Do you hear me?,” which is an altogether different query than “Do you understand?”

Also, this is what the head nigga in charge looks like:

Warner Bros.

Man on Fire

Mark Who Regrets It: Samuel Ramos

Denzel says and does so many cool things in Man on Fire, which is not to say that he isn’t always saying and doing cool things. But consider the following line: “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” It’s a stiff line of dialogue, but he says it while assembling an RPG. “Them” here means “people who kidnapped Dakota Fanning,” whose name in this movie is Lupita Ramos, which I still think is funny.

What’s also funny, but still badass, is when he says, “I’ll snatch the life right outta ya.” Because while you might say that to a person callous enough to take out an insurance policy against his daughter’s kidnapping, you’d also say that to a child acting out in the frozen-foods aisle at the supermarket. The art of the Denzel threat is in its construction: He is talking, which means you cannot, and while you’re not talking, you can think critically about how and when you got him fucked up. It’s beautiful.

American Gangster

Mark Who Regrets It: Tango

This is from American Gangster, a 2007 film in which Denzel sets a person on fire (again) and also slams Chiwetel Ejiofor’s head in a piano. But the absolute wildest thing he does, besides choke the streets with narcotics and wear a mink ringside, is pop Tango in the dome, in broad daylight, on a crowded street.

It should be clear by now that I enjoy watching Denzel establish dominance. This is markedly different, though: In Remember the Titans, he was establishing dominance over a football team. In Safe House, over his CIA handler. In Malcolm X, it was over his outfit. And in Training Day, well, everyone he encountered. But in American Gangster, he was establishing dominance over all of Harlem. It was never about his 20 percent, or Idris Elba and his distracting muttonchops.

The key to making people feel insignificant is for them to be insignificant to you. And by illustrating their insignificance, you affirm your importance, or something. I think that was in The 48 Laws of Power.

Look. Denzel perforated a man’s skull — WHILE SMILING — and didn’t even do that man the courtesy of looking at him while he did it. Then sat back down to finish his breakfast. That’s chilling literally any way you slice it.

The Magnificent Seven

Mark That Is Not Sentient And Therefore Technically Unable to Experience Regret: Memes

OK so this was originally supposed to be about a scene in the movie, where Denzel, as Sam Chisholm, kills a guy in a saloon. Said guy pleads that he has a family, and Denzel says, through the whiskers of his thick, virile mustache, “Nah, they better off without you.” I love that. However, you might recall the Uncle Denzel meme …

… and how Washington ruined it for everyone, invoking the almighty power of shame. He, generational movie star, is obscenely rich and successful, and you, person on the internet, are hopelessly broke and useless. And maybe a little confused.

It’s fine if you don’t want to click that link, which will doubtless leave you humbled. I’ll paraphrase for you: So are you gonna step up? Can you do, or can you not do? Can you even grow a mustache? How many Golden Globes do you have? Were you ever People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive? Don’t ever cross someone who once reformed health care entirely on their own, you hear me?

If you find yourself mumbling and searching the ground around your feet for answers, feeling suddenly, deeply inadequate, then you, person reading this, are Denzel’s mark. There’s no shame in that, because I’m Denzel’s mark too. We all are.