An Ode to Denzel Washington

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Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. was born on December 28, 1954 in Mount Vernon, NY. His father, Reverend Denzel Hayes Washington, Sr., was a Pentecostal minister and his mother, Lennis “Lynne” Washington, was a beautician and beauty parlor owner. When Washington was 6 years old, he joined the local Boys & Girls Club of America in Mount Vernon, N.Y. There he became heavily involved in sports and other after school activities.

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At age 14, his parents divorced and a young Denzel went on to live with his mother. Consequently, he started getting into fights and hanging out on the streets. Therefore, his mother sent him to the Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. He later credits his mother’s decision as well as the Boys and Girls Club, for keeping him away from drugs, crime and violence.
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After high school, Den­zel enrolled into Ford­ham University. There, he played basketball as a guard and studied medicine. However, he realized that medicine was not his passion. Therefore, he took a semester off and worked as the Creative Arts Director at the YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He later returned to Fordham with a new found interest in acting and in 1977, Washington earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. After graduation he received a scholarship to attend graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. However, he only stayed there for a year and returned to New York City to begin his professional acting career.
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In 1981, Washington made his first Hollywood appearance in the film Carbon Copy. Thenin 1982, Washington shared an Obie Award for his role in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production, A Soldier’s Play. Later that year, he was casted as Dr. Philip Chandler on the NBC hospital drama St. Elsewhere.
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By 1987, Washington had a successful run on the hit television drama, St. Elsewhere, married his wife Pauletta Pearson and had two children. He also earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Cry Freedom where he played Steve Biko.Then in 1989, Washington played a former slave who joined an all-black Civil War regiment in the film, Glory. The most powerful scene in the movie and arguably one of the best scenes in cinema history, was when Washington shed a single tear while being whipped for being accused of running away. He stated, ”I remember walking around before that scene, just praying and calling on the spirits of all the slaves, because I didn’t know how to play it…I went out there with an arrogance. I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength and it all came out of this meditation. It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, Don’t let him win.” He later went on to win his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
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The 90’s was a very productive decade for Washington. He starred as Bleek Gilliam in the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues and in 1992, he starred as Demetrius Williams in the romantic drama Mississippi Masala. Later that year, Washington was reunited with Spike Lee to play one of his most critically acclaimed roles as Malcolm X. His performance as the black nationalist leader earned him another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Washington continued on to star in several successful films, including PhiladelphiaThe Pelican Brief and Crimson TideMuch Ado About Nothing, Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife alongside Whitney Houston.
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In 1998, Washington starred in Spike Lee’s film He Got Game alongside Ray Allen. The film also marked the third time that Spike Lee and Washington worked on a film together. In 1999, Washington starred in The Hurricane, a film about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter whose conviction for triple murder was eventually overturned after he had spent almost 20 years in prison. His performance landed him a Best Actor Oscar nomination as well as a Golden Globe win.
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The 2000s was also a very successful decade for Washington. In 2000, he starred in his largest-grossing film to date, Remember the Titans and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Movie. He also made history in 2001 by winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in the film, Training Day. Here he played Detective Alonzo Harris, a rogue Los Angeles cop with questionable law-enforcement tactics. Washington said, ”I was never asked to play the heavy…I guess they thought I was the noble, nice guy.” With that performance he became the second African-American performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, the first being Sidney Poitier who also received an Honorary Academy Award that night.
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In 2002, Washington starred in John Q and he directed his first film, Antwone Fisher, in which he also co-starred. Between 2003 and 2009, Washington appeared in a series of thrillers that performed well at the box office, including Out of TimeMan on FireThe Manchurian Candidate, Inside ManDéjà Vu, and American Gangster, where he played the real-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas.
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In 2010, Washington earned his first Tony Award for the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences, opposite Viola Davis. Then in 2013, Washington earned his sixth Oscar nomination for his role in Flight. Here he played airline pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, whose act of heroism was tarnished by his struggle to stay sober.
Today, Denzel Washington remains a humble family man and has been awarded with an honorary doctorate from Fordham University, Morehouse College, and the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as the national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993.
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The most important life lessons that I have learned by observing Mr. Denzel Washington’s career is the importance of pressing forward in the face of adversity as well as maintaining a unwavering commitment to your craft.
“You cannot classify one’s style with just an outfit.” – Akil McLeod
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