Amidst all the discussion about lack of Oscar nominations for African-Americans this year, it seems opportune to consider the one black actor who’s actually won two Academy Awards: Denzel Washington. His enduring career proves that if you create great roles for African-Americans, there will be great actors to play them. The problem in Hollywood is less about recognition of black stars, more about creating roles for them that command recognition.
Agree with him or not, Denzel Washington chooses not to let race define his career. He once said: “I'm very proud to be black, but black is not all I am. That's my cultural historical background, my genetic makeup, but it's not all of who I am nor is it the basis from which I answer every question.” (This did not prevent him from confronting Quentin Tarantino about the use of racial slurs in his films when the director visited the set of 1995’s “Crimson Tide.”)
Denzel was born in Westchester, New York to a minister father and beautician mother. At the age of 14, his parents divorced and his mother sent him to a military academy nearby. This was a crucial move, as young Denzel was starting to hang out with some local gang members. Soon back on the straight-and-narrow, he graduated and enrolled at Fordham to study journalism.
After appearing in a few stage productions there, he decided to add drama to his major. After college, he studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for a year, then went back to New York City to start his professional acting career.
In 1981, Denzel made his big screen debut co-starring opposite George Segal in the lame comedy “Carbon Copy,” which deservedly flopped. This hardly stalled his upward momentum, however, as the following year he won a featured role in the long-running TV series, “St. Elsewhere.” On the big screen, he also appeared in “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), recreating a role he'd originated on-stage.
Then in 1989 came “Glory,” a hugely successful film about the first black regiment in the Civil War. His searing portrayal of a proud ex-slave soldier won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Denzel Washington was now a star.
That stardom has endured for over a quarter century now, with four more Oscar nods, and one win for 2001’s brutal “Training Day.” His most recent nomination happened just three years ago for the superb drama “Flight,” where Denzel plays a commercial pilot with serious substance abuse issues. His riveting performance tears your heart out.
In an industry known to take its toll on personal lives, Denzel Washington’s focus on his family stands out. The solidity he conveys in his more sympathetic roles clearly extends off-screen. He married his first and only wife Pauletta in 1983, and they have four children together. The following quote speaks volumes about his overall perspective: “Acting is just a way of making a living, the family is life.”
Amen to that, Mr. Washington.