The 20 Best Denzel Washington Movies

Movies Lists Denzel Washington
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 20 Best Denzel Washington Movies

Denzel Washington is one of the great American actors, period. Boasting fruitful collaborations with filmmakers like Spike Lee, Norman Jewison, Tony and Ridley Scott, and—eventually—himself once he started directing, Washington has been a force of nature since leaping from St. Elsewhere to the big screen in the mid-’80s. With two Oscars already under his belt and with a whole new era of his career in full swing thanks to his continued directorial efforts and his latest, The Tragedy of Macbeth, which sees him return to filmed Shakespeare after 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing, Washington remains a titan in the film industry who we should all remember.

Today we take a look at the 20 best Denzel Washington movies.

20. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Year: 2021
Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Bertie Carvel, Harry Melling
Rating: R
Runtime: 105 minutes

Defined by stark minimalism, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is an undeniable directorial flex. Coen commands the film’s slickly sparse black-and-white visuals alongside his cast of renowned actors, yielding a final product saturated with artistic determination—but one stripped of any semblance of madness or mania. The highly stylized aesthetic of the film—coupled with regretfully restrained performances—transform Macbeth into an all too tedious tragedy. Though it hardly requires recapitulation, The Tragedy of Macbeth follows the eponymous ruthless Scottish general (Denzel Washington) and his Lady (Frances McDormand) in the wake of a jarring prophecy. Coen’s Macbeth attempts to distinguish itself in comparatively cautious ways: Washington and McDormand occupy roles typically filled by younger actors, while the film’s milky white and dense black contrast enhances the otherwise barren landscape. Macbeth lacks any clear innovative distinction aside from a visually malleable soundstage and long-established actors. The rigid imagery, coupled with drably subdued performances from the film’s leads, demonstrates an inability to capture an overwrought descent into insanity; it is mania preventatively quashed by SSRIs. McDormand’s intent to portray Lady Macbeth as macabrely muted results in a restrictive rigidity. Meanwhile, Washington’s Macbeth is somewhat more convincing in his trepidation, but the role ultimately feels miscast—after all, the text’s succinct nature positions the cunning Scottish King as an unlikable fiend. The Tragedy of Macbeth is nonetheless a well-executed adaptation. The film’s staging and cinematography are clever and compelling; the thespians involved are unequivocally talented; it is competently helmed by one of the most influential directors currently working in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the bar set so high by previous Coen efforts renders all of these successful components moot. Joel Coen’s Macbeth lacks risk, ingenuity and, most importantly, reward. For those who seek a safely satisfying rendition of the lean Shakespearean tragedy, this latest execution will surely suffice. —Natalia Keogan

19. Déjà Vu

Year: 2006
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Paula Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Adam Goldberg, Jim Caviezel
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

Déjà Vu is one of umpteen collaborations between Denzel Washington and Tony Scott, though it might be their best. In it, Washington plays Doug Carlin, a gruff ATF agent who’s spent his entire career trying to catch people after they’ve committed crimes and, like any good cop, would love to one day catch these same people before. Save some federal dollars, right?! In order to stop a bomber, Carlin gets mixed up with a program called “Snow White,” which allows “present” folks to see 4 days, 6 hours, 3 minutes, 45 seconds, and 14.5 nanoseconds into the past, a technology that of course is so much more than it seems. A clusterfuck of alternate timelines, a mean-mugging Jim Caviezel and a bonkers car chase straight out of H.G. Wells’s wet dreams, Déjà Vu does what any time travel movie of its stripe should do: Abandon all logic and sense to play with time in a gritty, cosmos-sized sandbox. —Paste Staff

18. The Mighty Quinn

Year: 1989
Director: Carl Schenkel
Stars: Denzel Washington, James Fox, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Robert Townsend
Rating: R
Runtime: 98 minutes

Believe it or not, there was a time when Denzel Washington wasn’t a universally-beloved mega-superstar. One of his first leading roles, The Mighty Quinn, was largely responsible for putting Washington on the map. Directed by Swiss filmmaker Carl Schenkel and written by Hampton Fancher, the film is an adaptation of A. H. Z. Carr’s lauded 1971 crime novel Finding Maubee. The Mighty Quinn follows Xavier Quinn (Washington), the charismatic police chief of a small tropical island, who is on a mission to acquit his childhood friend Maubee (Robert Townsend) from murder accusations. Of course, this doesn’t quite go as planned, and what starts out as a cop flick quickly metamorphoses into a delightful number of things: It’s a spy thriller, a philosophical endeavor, a laugh-out-loud comedy. And this is carried, in large part, by Washington, whose performance is subtle, effortless, and wise beyond his years. I can’t imagine that there was a single person who watched this movie when it came out and didn’t imagine that Washington was going to become one of the biggest stars of his generation.—Aurora Amidon

17. Mo’ Better Blues

Year: 1990
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Dick Anthony Williams, Cynda Williams
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

Mo’ Better Blues is a prime example of Lee’s problem with cramming too many ideas into one movie, diluting them all. Bleek (Denzel Washington) is a jazz club trumpeter whose music is his religion, but how much longer can he put off the pleasures of his personal life in pursuit of musical perfection, especially as he sees his band partner (Wesley Snipes) having loose fun with his craft while capturing a different but also legitimate soul for jazz? Simple enough premise to delve into, yet Lee adds a fairly predictable love triangle and an overwrought sub-plot about Bleek’s manager (Spike Lee) owing money to gangsters. The jazz performance sequences are a delight, and the film captures a smooth tone that matches the music well, but it’s too overcrowded for its simple message. The identical bookending scenes of the film pose the question: How much should an artist sacrifice for their work? —Oktay Ege Kozak

16. The Hurricane

Year: 1999
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, Vicellous Reon Shannon, David Paymer, Dan Hedaya, Harris Yulin, Rod Steiger
Rating: R
Runtime: 146 minutes

Norman Jewison’s exploration of the life and incarceration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the infamous subject of Bob Dylan’s song of the same name—came with a lot of baggage and social uproar. Carter was an up-and-coming middleweight bruiser in the ’60s, when his career was cut short by a racially motivated arrest and false imprisonment for a robbery/homicide. By 1999, when the film was made, he had been acquitted after serving nearly 20 years in prison, and vast ongoing protests had been organized in his name for years. In spite of a dramatic story seemingly ready-made for cinema, Jewison renders the material strangely inert; he bookends it with too much exposition and unnecessarily complicates things with extended flashback sequences. Nonetheless, the film goes a long way on the charisma of Denzel Washington in the lead role.

15. Mississippi Masala

Year: 1991
Director: Mira Nair
Stars: Denzel Washington, Sarita Choudhury, Roshan Seth
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

A red-hot yet levelheaded romance, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala remains a trenchant look at hypocrisy and racism—as well as the capital driving its hatred and the love somehow still able to overcome. When a bootstrapping entrepreneur (Denzel Washington) meet-cutes a local hotel worker (Sarita Choudhury), their passionate affair rips through the Black and Indian communities of Greenwood. Choudhury and Washington have never been steamier, and Nair imbues their scenes with a constant, sexy low flame. Her ability to flip that heat to emphasize the other qualities of the oppressive South, where tradition and gossip and poverty and all the problems of the past sweat under the sun, makes it one of her most confident efforts. The shadows of slavery, of British imperialism, of Uganda’s racist expulsions all haunt the corners of the warm film and the nightmares of its characters. And yet their affection for their homelands, the ones in which they were born and those which they adopted, remains palpable—even if it isn’t reciprocated. If it sounds too heady for a star-crossed tale (it’s not), Washington and Choudhury’s chemistry is elemental enough to even hook the cynics.—Jacob Oller

14. A Soldier’s Story

Year: 1984
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington
Rating: PG
Runtime: 101 minutes

Charles Fuller adapted his own Off-Broadway play for A Soldier’s Story, an incisive military mystery mired in racial politics. Actors like Larry Riley, William Allen Young, Adolph Caesar and Denzel Washington reprised their stage roles, with Caesar earning an Oscar nomination for his work as a murdered master sergeant (and self-appointed dictator of Blackness), but a young Washington is the blazing heart of the film. Out of a steallar cast standing sharp at attention, Washington’s stiff fury and accusatory eyes offer hints of the same power and pride that would come to define some of his best performances. As Howard E. Rollins Jr.’s straight-from-Washington captain conducts the investigation into the killing—which took place right outside a segregated Deep South Army base in the midst of WWII—Norman Jewison’s steady hand and ability to maintain clarity over multiple actions, reactions, revelations, and flashbacks keeps the story just as gripping as the revolving soldiers telling their tales.—Jacob Oller

13. Crimson Tide

Year: 1995
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Matt Craven
Rating: R
Runtime: 123 minutes

There really is nothing like a good submarine movie, and Crimson Tide is just about as good as they come. Directed by Tony Scott, the 1995 thriller is set in the throes of a nerve-wracking arms race between the U.S. and post-Soviet Russia. The film’s main conflict features old-fashioned U.S. missile submarine Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) butting heads with cool and collected Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington). This tension is emphasized by Hans Zimmer’s Grammy-winning synth-score, scenes of conflict between the two leads that are made even more tense by virtue of the fact that they are on a literal submarine and, of course, powerhouse performances (Washington is at the height of his powers here). Given that it’s a war film, Crimson Tide also has a refreshingly nuanced take on patriotism and good and evil, which is very refreshing.—Aurora Amidon

12. Remember The Titans

Year: 2000
Director: Boaz Yakin
Stars: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Donald Faison, Nicole Ari Parker
Rating: PG
Runtime: 120 minutes

It doesn’t matter if you’re as passionate about football as little Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere) or as ambivalent as Coach Boone’s daughter: We guarantee you’ll get a little weepy during this tale of a newly integrated high school team in 1971 Virginia. Between Denzel Washington delivering a monologue about the Battle of Gettysburg and the movie’s dramatic ending (which we won’t spoil for you), there are plenty of moments where busting out the tissues is appropriate. It’s not a total downer, however; there are a bunch of scenes that’ll bring a smile to your face, including whenever a young Ryan Gosling pops up as a goofy, Motown-loving defensive back. —Bonnie Stiernberg

11. Much Ado About Nothing

Year: 1993
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes

In the history of film adaptations of Shakespeare, certain performances have so captured the essence of a character that the actor and role are forever linked afterwards. There is Olivier’s Hamlet, Olivier’s Richard III, Welles’ Othello, and Keanu Reeves’ Don John. Um, wait…did I say Keanu Reeves? How can I include the Maestro of the Monotone—the Duke of “Dude!” and the Wizard of “Whoa!”—in such company? Strangely enough, in Much Ado, Reeves’ performance is noteworthy not because he has been cast to his strengths but because he has been cast in a role that feeds upon his weaknesses. Don John, the melancholy, moping bastard brother of Don Pedro, is easily the most impotent of Shakespeare’s villains. Within the vestments of such a pallid villain, Reeves’ own shortcomings as an actor are completely concealed and even flattered. The result is casting and acting synergy fascinating to behold. Much Ado About Nothing merits viewing for a number of reasons—most of the performances are superb, and Branagh’s choice of a sun-drenched Tuscan backdrop is inspired. But as you enjoy the vigor and spirit of the film, please take a moment to appreciate the rare amalgam of poor acting and poor villainy that is Don Keanu. I mean, whoa. —Michael Burgin

10. Philadelphia

Year: 1996
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia is one of those 1990s prestige pictures that we don’t see the likes of much anymore. With a top-notch cast of stars and dramatic courtroom sequences, the film features it’s urban namesake as handsome and diverse, a place difficult to categorize, shot brightly and expansively (plus, it hits the classic rock jackpot with original music by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young). But within Philadelphia beats the heart of an art house flick, and it excels not only in its delicate handling of the AIDS crisis and mortality, but in its thoughtful examination of homophobia—all of which shouldn’t have been expected in a mainstream film at the time. Tom Hanks as Andy Bennett, afflicted with the disease and suing his employer (a fancy law firm headed by a glowering Jason Robards) for wrongful termination, is, in standard ’90s message-movie fashion, more or less a saint: a brilliant, compassionate upper-middle-class lawyer with a loving partner (Antonio Banderas) and a large, understanding family. More complex is Denzel Washington’s character, a “TV lawyer” who agrees to take Andy’s case but struggles to reconcile his own knee-jerk homophobia, even as he becomes his client’s friend and champion. Philadelphia acts as an appropriate backdrop for these conflicts, and the film’s extended opening montage pointedly takes us all over the city, highlighting its stately humanity, as if to say, “This is just one small story of justice and tragedy. But there are many more here to tell.” —Maura McAndrew

9. American Gangster

Year: 2007
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin
Rating: R
Runtime: 156 minutes

With American Gangster, Ridley Scott harkens back to the more measured style of filmmaking evidenced in his defining sci-fi document Blade Runner. The director’s world-building skills, never in doubt, are on full display as he recreates mid-’70s Harlem. But his storytelling once again prioritizes character over fast action. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, with the help of a talented supporting cast, light up this actor’s piece, turning in one audience delight after another. Washington is Frank Lucas, once right-hand man to a Harlem crime lord and eventually the most powerful and independent heroin dealer in New York City. Criminal or not, Lucas defines the American dream. Crowe is Ritchie Roberts, a too-honest cop given license to create an independent anti-drug unit, and he submerges into Roberts, displaying his considerable abilities in every frame. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine and Armand Assante all contribute a unique strength and credibility. Scott even makes T.I. and RZA look like actors. But the movie belongs to Washington and Crowe; the former cool and menacing, the latter slumped and disheveled. When they finally collide, the film sparks into overdrive. From beginning to end, American Gangster crackles with just performances that make genre filmmaking look like art.—Russ Fischer

8. He Got Game

Year: 1998
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

Lee has a unique ability to take different plotlines with different themes and tones and somehow insert them into the same movie, where they miraculously not only gel, but end up accentuating one another. When doing a period piece for BlacKkKlansman, he puts a mirror up to our current race relations. 25th Hour, about a drug dealer’s last day of freedom before he goes to jail, becomes a post-9/11 contemplation on unity against evil. He Got Game is essentially a satire of the way black athletes are exploited in college basketball, but it hides a powerful drama about a family torn apart through tragedy, and how compassion and forgiveness can come from even the most painful places. Denzel Washington is aces as always in the role of a once-abusive, alcoholic father seeking forgiveness from his basketball prodigy son (Ray Allen) for a horrific sin he committed. Yet that doesn’t diminish then-NBA-star Allen’s natural charisma in his first foray into acting. (And, as with many of Lee’s ’90s efforts, He Got Game is about 20 minutes too long.) —Oktay Ege Kozak

7. Inside Man

Year: 2006
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

With the exceptions of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, no filmmaker has had a more dynamic and fruitful relationship with New York City than Spike Lee. This connection is on full display in his 2006 crime drama, Inside Man. In one of his best performances to date, Clive Owen stars as a brilliant career criminal who takes over a New York bank. What at first appears to be a straightforward hostage situation, however, is soon revealed to be far more complex than anyone could have predicted. Soon, the inevitable media circus arrives, complicating matter for the detective (Denzel Washington) assigned to handle the case. The most financially successful film of Lee’s career, Inside Man is as much a love letter to NYC and its rich diverse melting pot of cultures and backgrounds as it is a genre thriller in the vein of Dog Day Afternoon and Ocean’s Eleven.—Mark Rozeman

6. Antwone Fisher

Year: 2015
Director: Denzel Washington
Stars: Denzel Washington, Derek Luke, Joy Bryant
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 120 minutes

A beautifully made but oft-overlooked film, Antwone Fisher, an adaptation of Fisher’s haunting memoir, was a heavy story often full of more tribulations than triumphs. But as Fisher (Derek Luke) recounted his days growing up in an abusive Cleveland foster home, one particular dream carried viewers through some incredibly difficult scenes. In the opening moments of the film a young Fisher (Malcolm David Kelley) has his recurring dream of being greeted by his entire family—including the members he never met, and those who may have abandoned him—while sitting at a table filled with all of the foods a deprived and neglected kid might dream of (but mostly pancakes). Fisher, with the help of a therapist on his naval base (Denzel Washington) is able to confront the nightmare realities he lived through to finally achieve the dream of a feast and family.—Shannon M. Houston

5. Devil in a Blue Dress

Year: 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Stars: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin
Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes

Devil in a Blue Dress perfectly casts Denzel Washington as a down-on-his-luck WWII veteran who relocates to L.A. to start a new career as a private investigator. As tends to happen with PIs in this subgenre, the man inevitably finds himself embroiled in a complicated murder investigation. Adding his own spin to the well-trodden noir plotlines, writer/director Carl Franklin uses his film’s detective story as a launching pad to explore the racial landscape of 1940s America. Philip Marlowe certainly had his share of rough encounters, but he had the benefit of never being instantly judged on the basis of his skin color. Mix in a scene-stealing turn from Don Cheadle and Devil in a Blue Dress makes for one tantalizing riff on the film noir formula. —Mark Rozeman

4. Training Day

Year: 2001
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Stars: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Cliff Curtis, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eva Mendes
Rating: R
Runtime: 122 minutes

In his darkest—and perhaps best—role, Denzel Washington embodies Alonzo Harris, an LAPD narcotics detective who can’t really be called “corrupt,” since that word is such an understatement. He’s vicious, Machievallian, and charismatic, and when he takes Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) under his wing, the combination is highly combustible. One of the chief pleasures of this film is watching Jake react to a situation that he is clearly not prepared for, trying manfully to hold on to an ethical foundation in the face of an arrogant, megalomaniacal crook disguised as one of society’s protectors. —Paste Staff

3. Fences

Year: 2016
Director: Denzel Washington
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 139 minutes

Fences is a movie with a somewhat contradictory dichotomy at its core. On one hand, the film is a masterwork, a labor of love adapted from the late, great August Wilson’s award-winning 1983 play and engineered for the screen by Denzel Washington. Yet it’s also a somewhat pedestrian cinematic achievement. As a showcase for acting, it’s a marvel. Washington does not star in film so much as he dominates it. More often than not he’s on screen, and even when he isn’t, his presence is still undeniable, which means his costars have to work twice as hard just to keep their profile from being swallowed up by Denzel’s iconic power. Yes, sure: Each of them succeeds, particularly Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson, but there’s no arguing that Fences isn’t about Washington in every possible sense. Which is a good thing! Washington has spent far too much of the past decade mucking around with movies unworthy of his talent—you’d probably have to go back to 2006’s Inside Man to find a role that actually serves him well—and in Fences he lets loose, bringing his swagger, his easy charm, his casual command and authority, and his humanity to the film’s forefront. Troy Maxson may not have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but Denzel makes him look like a goddamn titan.—Andy Crump

2. Glory

Year: 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Stars: Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick
Rating: R
Runtime: 122 minutes

Matthew Broderick may appear in the lead as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, but Glory belongs to Denzel Washington (Pvt. Trip), Morgan Freeman (Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins), Andre Braugher (Cpl. Thomas Searles) and Jhimi Kennedy (Pvt. Jupiter Sharts). These actors deliver incredible performances as members of the first all-black regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, with Washington going on to win the 1990 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Instead of focusing on the obvious North vs. South binary, Glory follows the men as they struggle against Northern racism and their own perceptions of what it means to be Black, and what it means to be Black in an army where they are almost never seen as equals—despite fighting on the same “side” as their white counterparts. With a hauntingly beautiful score, and some of the most memorable war scenes directed by Edward Zwick, Glory is one of the most important films not just about the Civil War, but about America’s eternally complicated history of racism and the black pride that persists in spite, on the battlefield and beyond. —Shannon M. Houston

1. Malcolm X

Year: 1992
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 201 minutes

Spike Lee’s masterpiece is Do the Right Thing, but the other pinnacle of Lee’s career is his epic biopic of the controversial ’60s activist. Denzel Washington’s towering performance is at the crux of the film, with a fiery charisma pulsing under a collected exterior. Unafraid to plumb the depths of the man’s weaknesses—both ideological and personal—Lee takes on the task of demythologizing a modern legend. An eerie high point in the movie comes during the evocative use of Otis Redding’s A Change is Gonna Come; as the stirring plea for civil rights is set against the dramatic lead-up to Malcolm X’s assassination.—Christina Newland