I’ve written about Denzel Washington and his body of work more times than I could count, so this piece was particularly interesting to me. I started liking – and I mean really liking – Washington’s work when he played Ray Allen’s convict dad in He Got Game, and then Washington uncorked a long string of films I love, his best work being Man on Fire and Training Day, but if you go through his filmography, there’s not a bad one in the bunch. If I have such a thing, he is my favorite actor.
I don’t care about race – it’s uninteresting to me. My question of any person in any endeavor is simple: are they doing what they’re doing well, or are they mailing it in? Washington at least appears to do it well, which, as an actor, is as it should be:
But Washington, who won his first Oscar for playing a slave-turned-Union-soldier in “Glory,” is something that didn’t exist in old Hollywood. Moviegoers, Thorp wrote in 1939, “are primarily white and no white American, the industry maintains, would ever make his escape personality black.”
That has changed. In the Harris poll, Corso says, “Denzel Washington was No. 1 for whites, for African-Americans and for Hispanics.” Audiences identify with him, regardless of race.
That doesn’t make him ethnically neutral. He is a star and thus always himself. We don’t forget his race in order to accept his individuality or that of his characters; his heritage is part of who he is. (Angelina Jolie can similarly play action roles written for men, but no one ever forgets she’s a woman.)
When Washington takes on a supposedly nonracial part like the pilot in “Flight” or the bad cop in “Training Day,” he inhabits the role with a body, an accent and an attitude that are, like his first name, identifiably African-American. He is not a man who tolerates disrespect. And because he is almost always the most capable, and often the most admirable, guy in the room, audiences don’t just respect him. They want to be him.