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Roger's Favorites: Denzel Washington

Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on actor Denzel Washington

When Roger saw Denzel Washington in Carl Schenkel’s under-seen 1989 action film, “The Mighty Quinn,” he knew that he was looking at a future film legend. His character of the titular police officer was the sort of role that “creates a movie star overnight,” according to Roger, who went on to write in his four-star review that Washington’s accomplishment in the film is “a lesson in movie acting.” He compared the actor to Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the prime of his Bond franchise. Washington would go on to win his first Oscar that year, but it would be for a different film, Ed Zwick’s Civil War drama, “Glory.” Roger’s prediction, of course, proved to be correct, as Washington subsequently proved to be an actor of “immense and natural charm” in films such as “Mississippi Masala” (1992), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Crimson Tide” (1995), “Courage Under Fire” (1996) and “He Got Game” (1998), all of which earned three-and-a-half stars from the critic.

Yet it was Washington’s performance in the title role of Spike Lee’s historical epic, “Malcolm X” (1992) that established the actor, in Roger’s mind, as “the front-runner for this year’s Academy Award.” In his four-star review of the film, he wrote that Washington delivered “a performance of enormous breadth. He never seems to be trying for an effect, and yet he is always convincing.” When he named “Malcolm X” the best film of 1992, he said that Washington’s performance “gave us the entire canvas of a man's lifetime, from orphan to street hoodlum, from prisoner to self-taught preacher to political leader.” The film would later rank #9 in Roger’s list of the decade’s best films. When Roger interviewed Washington about the film in 1992, he said that the actor was part of a crucial generation of African-American stars in the 1980s that also included Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes and Morgan Freeman. “Their movies have shown a more complete picture of the many black experiences in this country than Hollywood attempted in earlier decades,” Roger wrote.

Though the actor lost the Oscar in 1992 to Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman,” a win that was largely seen as a make-up victory for earlier snubs, Washington would score a make-up victory of his own with a Best Actor win for Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” (2001), in which he was cast against type as an evil L.A.P.D. detective. “Washington seems to enjoy a performance that's over the top and down the other side,” Roger wrote in his three-star review of the film. Several pundits saw the win as an attempt by the Academy to not only make up for snubbing his work in “Malcolm X,” but also Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” (1999), in which the actor delivered another of his “great performances, on a par with his work in ‘Malcolm X,’” according to Roger. Yet in his 2002 coverage of Sundance, Roger called Washington’s “Training Day” performance “astonishing,” and criticized people who had condemned the actor by playing such a negative character. “Should he have shown the bright side, by playing a dedicated black cop? And denied us that performance?” asked Roger. “If there can be a corrupt white cop in the movies, why not a black one?” The actor would unapologetically mine his dark side again in Ridley Scott’s 2007 Frank Lucas biopic, “American Gangster,” which earned four stars from Roger. “He is affable and smooth on the outside,” the critic wrote, “yet ruthless enough to set an enemy on fire.” 

Roger also wrote favorably about Washington’s two feature directorial efforts, starting with “Antwone Fisher” (2002), which received three-and-a-half stars. It was one of the rare films that reduced Roger to tears in its final scenes, and caused him to reflect on how he often finds his emotions most deeply effected “not by sadness so much as goodness.” Washington’s second film, “The Great Debaters” (2007), was hailed by Roger as “spellbinding” and “one of the year’s best films,” ranking at #9 on his Top Ten list. “The film is not another story about an underdog championship,” Roger wrote, “but a searing reminder of the racist society the team lived in.” Washington’s most recent Oscar-nominated performance, as an airline pilot battling drug addiction in Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight” (2012) placed at #6 in Roger’s final Top Ten list. In his four-star review, Roger admired how the actor’s performance, “one of his very best,” was “grounded on obsessive control” rather than opting for going over-the-top. “Not often does a movie character make such a harrowing personal journey that keeps us in deep sympathy all of the way,” Roger wrote.

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