The Underappreciated Brilliance of Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington is already a history-making, Academy Award-winning actor with two Oscars to his credit. His first was as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory. The second honor was for Best Actor, thanks to his role as the nefarious Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day.

But some believe that the Best Actor nod in 2001 wasn’t even among his best roles. 

To say that the Academy knows him well is an understatement. His first Oscar nomination came in 1987 as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Cry Freedom as Stephen Biko. In 1999, The Hurricane saw Washington show his versatility as he was required to display unbridled anger and unquenchable pride in his portrayal of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the championship boxer from New Jersey who was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Again, like six years prior with his mesmerizing portrayal of Malcolm X, Washington was up against very stiff competition, but the winner in 1999 was Kevin Spacey for his portrayal of a grown man who had become infatuated with a teenage girl. That just never sat well with me.

With his most recent portrayal of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, Washington introduced an American “every man” into the cinematic ether. Indeed, in the movies, brothers aren’t allowed to be flawed but fiercely proud. They have to be extraordinary in one sense or another, either silly simpletons or magic Negroes of a sort.

Maxson was extraordinary only in his will to survive, which is about as Black as you can get. I guess that’s why I think this Oscar nomination was so special for Washington. From the time the early clippings of his role in Fences began to trickle in, up until the moment prior to the unfortunate reveal at this years Oscars, Washington likely hoped this Oscar could be claimed, not in his name, but in the name of the late, great playwright August Wilson, an American literary giant whose true brilliance is just being revealed to the world.

But in whose name will Oscar award-winning actor Casey Affleck be claiming the title of Best Actor for his role in Manchester by the Sea? During his acceptance speech, Affleck had somewhat invoked Washington’s tutelage in a scene that was eerily similar to Adele paying homage to Beyonce while accepting the Album of the Year over Lemonade at this year’s Grammys.

But unlike Bey, Washington wasn’t having any of that, and the sour face of disappointment he displayed during Affleck’s speech told the tale.

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This isn’t an anomaly in Washington’s career. His very first, and perhaps most telling Oscar snub was for his title role in Malcolm X. In this Spike Lee directed offering, we see Washington at the pinnacle of his abilities, displaying legendary fire, passion and smoothness that has become indicative of almost every role since. Though we were proud that it even got nominated at all, deep inside we knew a movie about a Black Muslim leader and civil rights icon would not actually win.

What was even more telling was that, though Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm was too good to be ignored, it still lost out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman.

In Flight, Washington played William “Whip” Whitaker Sr., a drug and alcohol addict who was also an airline pilot. He’s been exploiting airline regulations to fly high. However, an in-flight mechanical failure causes him to react with pinpoint expertise to save lives. First a hero, it is soon revealed that Whip isn’t telling the truth. This movie was all about facing our mistakes and standing up for what’s right at the end of the day. At the 85th Annual Academy Awards, again, there was stiff competition. But that’s the case every year. Washington would lose out again.


It’s yet another year and Denzel has been passed over for an Oscar he clearly feels he may have deserved.  The 62-year-old actor will likely keep giving stirring portrayals of characters that are near and dear to his constituency and will be nominated again in the near future.  

After all, his works speak for themselves year after year. However, when you compare the average relatively young ages of white Academy Award winners to the more advanced age of the average Black Academy Award winner, Grandma’s old saying comes to mind “We have to work twice as hard to get half as much.”  

That old adage seems to be playing out over the length of Denzel Washington’s brilliant, historic yet still underappreciated career.

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