Criminal Record #6 – Denzel Washington and the Value of Charisma

From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a column delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime films. This time, a look at Denzel Washington’s career as a crime film leading man.

Denzel Washington is one of the biggest Black actors working in Hollywood today, and certainly the one who has retained his A-list status the longest. Since breaking through in the 80s, he has carved out a career playing both serious dramas and action fare – drawing on both his actorly background and his charisma – whether that’s historical biopics like Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), Oscar-bait acting showcases like Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012) or thrillers and police procedurals like Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004) and The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999). It’s the latter films, though, which have provided him with most of his box office hits and the ones we’re going to look at today.

He remains a rare type of actor: a genuine dramatic talent AND a bona-fide Hollywood star whose name alone can sell a film, an increasing rarity in today’s age of Marvel blockbusters and established IPs. Over the years, Denzel Washington has cultivated a very specific image as an action and crime film star. He nearly always plays someone exceptionally good at their job, and popular with those around him, but with an everyman roundedness. Sometimes, he’ll play someone more troubled with mistakes and demons looming in the past, but often these are tokenistic character-depth scribbles.

As he’s aged, he’s been given more authoritative roles in these positions, grizzlier, more rough-around-the-edges. He’s the picture-postcard vision of confident, charismatic masculinity, and he sells that image without breaking a sweat, courtesy of his warmth onscreen, that distinct, musical voice and his megawatt smile. What does that mean when we watch a Denzel Washington crime movie?

The Taking of Pelham 123. Denzel Washington in a tan shirt, with a computer screen behind him, speaks into a tannoy.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (Tony Scott, 2008)

The last few months have seen a lot of justified anger and demands being made on police forces in America and the wider world for the institutionally racist treatment, violence and abuse communities of colour have faced for generations. Between the calls for abolishing, defunding or reforming police, there’s also been questions about the media we consume and to what degree the films and TV shows we love shape our worldview, particularly our cultural love of the cop film. Now, as your bargain-basement white boy I’m in no position to elaborate on the details of state-sanctioned violence against people of colour, but Denzel Washington’s position as one of Hollywood’s go-to cops, CIA-trained killers and questing detectives is worth taking a look at.

If we take the position that Hollywood movies are ultimately all about presenting us with a fantasy which we enact as spectators, then Washington’s crime movies are a vision of a multiracial America where competent law enforcement is undertaken by the best in the business and where individual genius trumps collective action in the face of corruption, bureaucracy and malice. His individual charisma and ability to appeal to audiences across the racial divide in these roles are key to his enduring popularity.

As part of this image, he is rarely given a romantic purpose (and it remains so that very few Black actors are given romantic subplots, particularly across racial divides, even ones as preposterously handsome and beautiful as Washington). Instead, there is a greater tendency to place him in father figure roles – which he takes on in The Bone Collector (directing Angelina Jolie’s rookie cop), Man on Fire (bodyguard to Dakota Fanning) and The Equalizer (wreaking revenge on those who harm Chloe Grace Moretz; Anthony Fuqua, 2014). For audience identification, he serves as a comforting presence – desexualised, competent, an everyman role model. It’s an approachable fantasy – real enough to see in our own lives, pulpy enough and preposterous enough to propose something crazier.

Part of that cocktail is the innate dignity that Washington seems to bring to these roles. In Tony Scott’s 2008 remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, Washington is the traffic controller demoted for suspected corruption, tasked with negotiating with Travolta’s psychotic stock-broker-turned-thief. The subway train Travolta’s hijacked becomes a symbol for capitalism’s intricate, ever-expanding networks, the protagonist and antagonist’s actions just pawns in a wider game driven by finance. But Washington’s inevitable victory denotes the success of individuals capable of weathering the storm with their dignity intact, of not losing control. Thus, he emerges the victor – Travolta goes crazy and emerges the loser.

The Equalizer. Denzel Washington sits in the driving seat of a car in the night-time, glowering off-camera.
The Equalizer (Anthony Fuqua, 2014)

The element of dignity to Washington’s star persona is key to elevating run-of-the-mill thrillers like The Equalizer. Here he’s a retired CIA agent living a double life as a DIY store worker, who ends up going against the Russian mob because they beat up a sex worker (Moretz) whom Washington becomes a father figure to. The film utilises that natural elegance to beef up Washington as an Americanising force of culture – he gives the sex worker books, teaching her the meaning of literature! – and is basically a one-man tool for wiping out corruption, particularly the influence of ‘new’ money into the American financial system. There’s a line drawn in the film between the Russian mob – first generation immigrants and noveau riche criminals unaware of the ‘rules’ of American crime, and the second or third generation crime syndicates by Americanised immigrants such as the Irish and Italians, who are better behaved. But without Washington’s dignity and gravitas, you simply wouldn’t believe in his character. The audience latches onto that helplessly.

That need to believe is what helps sell his five-film collaboration with Tony Scott who, along with Spike Lee (four films) and Anthony Fuqua (also four films), is the director Washington worked with most before Scott’s passing. For Scott’s hyperactive style – rapid-fire editing, film grain tricks, constant movement – Denzel Washington provides the perfect counterfoil: a heavy-as-lead anchor around which the pop video-derived aesthetics of Scott’s style can be hung on. Scott was never a director renowned for subtlety, but the actor – through sheer force of charisma and talent often ­– becomes that needed subtlety and gravitas. It’s hard to see a film as pointlessly long as Man on Fire (two and a half hours to tell a simple revenge plot that most films wrap up in ninety) working without Denzel Washington giving his character – alcoholic ex-Marine John Creasy – the kind of depth and attention that is quite frankly undeserved and clearly not in the script. Yet he does and, like a true movie star, he makes it look easy.

Of his crime films, the main outlier filmography is Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001), which coincidentally also won him his second Oscar for best actor (his previous was for Glory, directed by Edward Zwich in 1990 as best support). Here, he is against type as the wholly bad and wholly dirty Alonzo Harris – a LA cop who is also the biggest criminal going, taking young rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) out on his first day on patrol.

Washington is initially presented as this model of heroic police-hood, but as Hawke spends more time with him it becomes clear that this a carefully constructed image within an already corrupt police force. The film’s somewhat iffy racial politics (white cop saves black neighbourhood by taking out corrupt black cop) were commented on at the time – it’s interesting to think that a film in which a rookie black cop taken into a corrupt white world seems much harder to imagine – but it’s another example of how Denzel’s star persona is deployed in genre fare; that natural charisma and gravitas is turned on its head in the portrayal of a monster. There’s no real subtlety in the performance, which is a scenery-chewing showboat, but the basic contours of his crime film persona are still useful in a villainous role.

Inside Man. Left to right - Chiwetel Ejiofor, Denzel Washington and Willem Dafoe, all in police uniform.
Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)

Unsurprisingly, his most complex roles in a crime film has come by way of Spike Lee in Inside Man (2006). As police negotiator Detective Keith Frazier, tasked with bringing out Clive Owen’s band of thieves out from the bank they’re robbing, he tamps down his natural magnetism in favour of naturalism. Here, he’s not a superman or a supervillain, but an average joe doing his job. Lee finds ways to depict how Frazier, as a Black man in the police force, is in part complicit in the very structures that oppress him by refusing the confront its past (a scene where a Sikh hostage is mistaken for a Muslim terrorist is particularly prescient in this regard).

As a pawn in a wider game, Washington brings complexity and doubt, something that is not often allowed to creep into his performances in crime films. Even films where he is given a token flaw (alcoholism in Man on Fire, corruption allegations in The Taking of Pelham 123), he emerges having banished them; we are required to buy entirely into his heroism to buy him as a star. Such has often been the life of a Hollywood star, with persona quickly closing in on dramatic potential, and Washington’s position as a leading Black actor perhaps limits him even more in that regard. He has long been very secretive about his private life, tending to navigate Hollywood with an absolute minimum of star-fuelled egotism, which makes him an ideal inscription for audiences willing to envision an American fantasy of racial harmony but not willing to analyse the structures of oppression working underneath.

His performances in crime films are always deeply satisfying, and never less than loads of fun (few other actors can elevate mediocrity to something beyond). Questioning how Hollywood positions actors in the wider imagination, and how we respond to that as viewers, can tell us a lot about why we associate Denzel Washington films with such a specific sense of authority and desexualised masculinity.