In 2020, The New York Times anointed Denzel Washington the greatest actor of the 21st century so far. And even if we still have more than 75 years remaining in this century, it’s hard to imagine someone usurping his throne. In 2014, W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery launched the podcast Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period, a title that’s as self-explanatory as it is hard to dispute. Indeed, such over the top accolades follow Washington everywhere and for good reason. With every performances we feel like he’s inventing the craft of acting before our very eyes. Or, at the very least, he has given that film the exact amount of whatever it needs to service the story he’s there to help tell.
A New York-born son of a Pentecostal minister, Washington has won two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor for Glory and Best Actor for Training Day) which somehow doesn’t seem like enough. And while there are narrative misfires on Denzel’s resume (like the flawed John Q or the somewhat watchable Virtuosity), it’s almost a given—a law as immutable as gravity, to quote Top Gun: Maverick—that there is no such thing as a “bad” Denzel performance. That makes it tricky to cull through his impressive CV to find his most essential films. But we managed to do it, just in time for The Equalizer 3, a continuation of the only franchise on the actor’s enviable resume. So here are 21 must-see Denzel Washington movies and performances that only get better with age and multiple viewings. Consider it a Master Class from a master of the form.