Known as one of the greatest actors of our generation, Denzel Washington has an incredible career that has spanned over four decades and produced some of the best movies ever committed to celluloid. His career includes over 60 roles as an actor and three films that he has both starred in and directed. King Kong ain’t got shit on this guy!
With the release of his latest film The Equalizer 3 this month, a movie that finds Washington reuniting with his Man on Fire co-star Dakota Fanning in the third and final movie about former government agent Robert McCall, we wanted to dive deep into the legend’s filmography and selected his best performances.
Surprisingly, it was much harder to narrow the list down, so instead of the standard top ten, we have chosen the 20 best Denzel Washington movies of all time. So in no particular order, here are our top picks we think are worth your time.
1. Flight (2012)
While it’s hard to pick and choose which Washington performance is the “greatest of all time,” this has to be up there. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) loosely adapted the real-life events of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 with Washington playing pilot William “Whip” Whitaker Sr. who struggles with his own demons (mainly alcoholism and drug addiction) during the crash investigation.
Washington’s work as Whip is powerful, heartbreaking, and authentic in a way few others could rival. Don Cheadle (Avengers: Endgame), Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone), and John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) all give excellent supporting performances that only highlight Whip’s brokenness and need to change. Flight is one of Washington’s best roles, hands down.
2. Fences (2016)
Washington has made himself known in more recent years for his excellence behind the camera as well as in front of it, and Fences is no exception. Based on the August Wilson 1985 play of the same name, this film follows Troy Maxxon (Washington) and his wife Rose (Viola Davis, The Help) as they navigate the black experience in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Fences has some of the most incredible and dramatic moments between father and son, husband and wife, and man’s own internal struggles. The film deals with intense themes of racism, infidelity, paternal relationships, grief, and even death in a way that feels all too down-to-earth and relatable. Washington shows his true skill just as much behind the camera as he does in front.
3. Training Day (2001)
Not only one of Washington’s best movies but also one of director Antoine Fuqua’s (The Equalizer) and writer David Ayer’s (Fury) best as well. The film follows a day in the life of LAPD narcotics officers Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, First Reformed) and Detective Alonzo Harris (Washington) as they work the gang-ridden LA neighborhoods.
Training Day exposes the real world of police corruption, drug busts, the Los Angeles gang scene, and so much more. Denzel kills it as Alonzo, who is completely unlike the normal “straight man” character he is used to playing. Hawke does some of his best work as well and he is our “eyes and ears” in the world of the LAPD narcotics division. This one is a blast.
4. The Book of Eli (2010)
One of my favorite post-apocalyptic films, The Book of Eli, written and directed by the Hughes brothers (Dead Presidents), follows the nomadic Eli (Washington) as he travels around an American wasteland with a mysterious book and a “holy calling.” Washington stars opposite Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) and Mila Kunis (That 70s Show).
Between the film’s eerie score, excellent action sequences, complex worldbuilding, and intriguing plot, the movie meshes together perfectly to create a neo-Western symphony that Denzel lends himself nicely to. The Book of Eli is one of those exciting, but somber, adventure stories that will make you think twice about surviving a pandemic and traveling across the country.
5. Devil In a Blue Dress (1995)
An American neo-noir mystery thriller film (say that three times fast), Devil in a Blue Dress may be one of Denzel’s most popular 90s films. This period piece, based on the novel of the same name, follows WWII veteran Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Washington) as he searches for a “mysterious woman.”
Part of this film’s charm is the nostalgia of 1940s Los Angeles, combined with the desire to know not whodunnit, but as one film critic said, “whydunnit?” Flight co-star Don Cheadle is also a part of this one as “Mouse,” stealing the show every time he’s on-screen. A stunning flick worthy of making this list.
6. Man on Fire (2004)
Tony Scott (Enemy of the State) released one of his greatest action-thrillers in the early 2000s. Man on Fire, based on the 1980s novel of the same name, follows the story of former CIA officer-turned-bodyguard John Creasey (Washington) as he goes on a revenge rampage after his young charge, Pita (Dakota Fanning, Because of Winn-Dixie), is abducted in Mexico City.
The high-stakes action sequences, intimate editing, and constant suspense put both Creasey and us on edge throughout the film. This one is not for the faint of heart as it contains a lot of disturbing material. But it’s all worth it for that final scene between Creasey and the young Pita, where a nine-year-old Dakota Fanning gives one of her best performances.
7. Malcolm X (1992)
Malcolm X is a Spike Lee (Inside Man) biopic on the great leader himself, with Denzel Washington playing the civil rights legend to perfection. This epic chronicles his criminal career to his conversion to Islam to his civil rights protests his assassination, and so much more. This film is the second of four collaborations between Washington and Lee.
In one of Washington’s most important performances, Malcolm X humanizes the man, divulging into his childhood traumas, his own experience with racism, and his fallout with the Nation of Islam. It’s an excellent film that does its due diligence with the history of the great and respected civil rights leader.
8. Fallen (1998)
We’ve written about this one before, but that’s because it’s the biggest hidden gem in Denzel Washington’s filmography. Fallen follows Detective John Hobbs (Washington) as he works to solve mysterious copycat killings after the serial killer, Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas, The Thin Red Line), is executed. But everything is not what it seems…
The film takes an unsuspecting supernatural turn as Hobbs discovers that this is something far more sinister than he initially believed. It’s an interesting thriller with an ending you won’t see coming. John Goodman co-stars as Hobbs’ partner “Jonesy,” (their first on-screen pairing, long before Flight) alongside Donald Sutherland (JFK), Embeth Davidtz (Mad Men), and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos).
9. Philadelphia (1993)
The one collaboration between Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) and Washington is the legal drama Philadelphia, directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). As the first Hollywood film to acknowledge the HIV/AIDS crisis, this film won Tom Hanks an Academy Award for Best Actor, but Washington’s role is of equal importance.
The film follows Andy Beckett (Hanks), a man with HIV who is fired from his law firm due to his condition, and Joe Miller (Washington), his homophobic lawyer who is the only one willing to advocate for his wrongful dismissal. This is a tough film that deals with real-world issues of discrimination and prejudices the only way that Hollywood knows how. The Bruce Springsteen theme song is also top-notch.
10. The Hurricane (1999)
Who would’ve thought that a biographical sports drama about the life of middleweight boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter would become one of Washington’s greatest roles? Well, here we are! Washington gives his all as Hurricane faces his greatest fight of all, his fight for justice.
The Hurricane does its best to tell the story of Carter, primarily focusing on the time between 1966 and 1985, as he fights his false conviction for triple murder. While this film is an emotional rollercoaster along similar lines as the recent film Just Mercy, it throws some powerhouse punches that’ll land right into your heart.
11. American Gangster (2007)
American Gangster, as the title suggests, is a gangster flick (yeah, Washington starred in a gangster movie) about the real-life drug trafficker Frank Lucas (Washington) and the detective, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), who leads the task force to stop him. This film is kind of insane and does a remarkable job explaining Lucas’ connection between his family, drugs, and the Vietnam War.
Ridley Scott, brother to frequent Washington collaborator Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 123), composes an incredible gangster picture, forcing us to almost root for Lucas as he goes from drug trafficking to helping Roberts expose corrupt NYC cops. It’s an intriguing tale that will certainly keep you guessing.
12. Crimson Tide (1995)
Another Tony Scott/Denzel Washington collaboration, Crimson Tide is an intense war drama set aboard the U.S.S. Alabama submarine that parallels a real incident from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this film, a new executive officer (Washington) and the sub’s seasoned commanding officer (Gene Hackman, Enemy of the State) clash under the intense pressure of nuclear war.
The Washington/Hackman standoff forces the viewer to pick a side in an impossible situation, doing an excellent job of portraying both well and unbiasedly until a final decision must be made. This claustrophobic crisis is some of Scott’s best work, and coincidentally some of Washington and Hackman’s in return.
13. Déjà Vu (2006)
Speaking of Tony Scott, Deja Vu is another collaboration between Denzel and the underrated director who does not fail to disappoint. A time-travel thriller, the film follows the life of ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) as he looks back in time to solve, and later prevent, a domestic terrorist attack that takes place in New Orleans.
Deja Vu might sound like a popcorn action flick (and at times it can be), but it offers a lot more. The film explores the ethics of time travel, what it means to love someone and even philosophical questions about God. The film also stars Val Kilmer (Tombstone), Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan), Paula Patton (2 Guns), and Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ).
14. He Got Game (1998)
Another Spike Lee collaboration, this sports drama sees Denzel play Jake Shuttlesworth, who is the father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the nation (played by real NBA player Ray Allen). After killing his wife, Shuttlesworth is released on parole for one week by the state’s governor to persuade his son to play for the governor’s alma mater in order to shorten his sentence.
He Got Game is a story about a father, a son, and a holy game that ultimately tries and tests the bond between Shuttlesworth and his son, named Jesus. There’s also this side plot involving a prostitute (Mila Jovovich, Resident Evil) that is pretty satisfying. John Turturro (The Big Lebowski), Rosario Dawson (Ahsoka), and Ned Beatty (Superman: The Movie) also star.
15. Remember the Titans (2000)
One of Denzel’s most famous roles, the Disney film Remember the Titans (produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) tells the true story of coach Herman Boone (Washington) as he works to integrate the T.C. Williams High School football team in early 1970s Virginia. If sports films are your thing, then you won’t want to miss this one.
Remember the Titans is best remembered for its memorable and impactful speech which Boone delivers to his team one morning in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. It’s powerful and reminds us of the timely truth that it doesn’t matter if we like each other, we must respect each other. The film also co-stars the underrated Will Patton (Falling Skies) as assistant coach Bill Yoast and a young Ryan Gosling.
16. Glory (1989)
Speaking of great American battles, Glory is the one that won Denzel his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. This Civil War epic is what helped put Denzel on the map, and there’s a reason for that. Between the intense battle sequences, themes of racism and prejudice, and the meaning of brotherhood, Glory proves to live up to its name.
Starring opposite Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Denzil plays the young Private Trip who follows Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick) into the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
17. The Great Debaters (2007)
Washington’s second film behind the camera (though don’t worry, he’s in front as well), The Great Debaters is based on the true story of the Wiley College debate team. Washington plays American author, poet, and debate coach Melvin B. Tolson in this heart-warming tale about overcoming the odds no matter who is against you.
The Great Debaters also stars Forest Whitaker (Black Panther) as a real-life minister and theologian James L. Farmer Sr., with Denzel Whitaker (who was actually named after Denzel Washington and is unrelated to Forest Whitaker) playing the young civil rights activist James Farmer Jr. Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation) and Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country) also star.
18. Courage Under Fire (1996)
Another Edward Zwick (Glory) film, Courage Under Fire follows disillusioned U.S. Army officer Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Washington) as he investigates a late female chopper commander’s “worthiness” for the Medal of Honor. Meg Ryan (When Harry Met Sally) stars opposite Washington as Captain Karen Emma Walden, the commander in question.
Besides great supporting performances from Lou Diamond Phillips (Longmire) Scott Glen (Daredevil), and Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Courage Under Fire is an excellent war drama that forces Serling to confront his own demons while discovering a cover-up surrounding Captain Walden’s death. Courage Under Fire proves that the truth will always reign supreme.
19. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Generally, when Denzel Washington comes to mind, musical-comedy dramas do not. Mo’ Better Blues is the odd exception to that rule. Written, directed, and produced by Spike Lee, Washington stars as Bleek Gilliam, a trumpet player in The Bleek Quinet, his jazz band. Lee also co-stars as Bleek’s band manager, Giant, with Wesley Snipes (Blade) as bandmate Shadow Henderson.
This Spike Lee product is a classic about Bleek’s copious bad decisions, his rocky friendship with Giant, as well as his own dreams, goals, and what matters most. The film, like many Spike Lee joints, takes its time dealing with social issues like gambling, infidelity, and the eventual disaster that results. It’s not all doom and gloom though; the music’s great!
20. Unstoppable (2010)
Tony Scott’s final collaboration with Denzel and his final film period (Scott sadly passed away in 2012), Unstoppable is a remarkably engaging movie set primarily on a train. Based on a real-life incident, Unstoppable follows Frank Barnes (Washington), a veteran railroad engineer, and Will Colson (Chris Pine, Star Trek), a young train conductor as they attempt to stop a runaway freight train.
Unstoppable is an excellent example of a film with very little plot but a lot of genuine character development, which is what Washington is best at. The dynamic between Frank Barnes and Chris Pine’s Will Colson is only part of what makes this film great, the other part being the clever gut-wrenching moments that make the end of this film all too sweet.