Denzel Washington, by way of Booker T. Washington
The following is part of a series of posts about Denzel Wasington, part of a larger project on Hollywood Actors as Historians. --JC
Two facts about Denzel Washington seem worth mentioning at the outset: 1) He’s the son of a minister; and 2) His father was absent for much of his adolescence. It’s possible to make too much of these facts, but his career trajectory suggests they counts for something.
Washington was born on December 28, 1954, the second of three children. His mother, Lennis, a one-time gospel singer, hailed from Georgia but was raised in Harlem. His father, Denzel Sr., a Virginia native, was named after the obstetrician who delivered him, a Dr. Denzel.
Denzel Jr. was born, and spent his childhood, in Mount Vernon, New York. A small city in Westchester County situated between some of the meaner streets of the Bronx and the leafier lanes of Bronxville, Mount Vernon is a liminal space in metropolitan New York, and suggestive of what appears to have been a precariously middle-class youth in the interracial neighborhood of Fleetwood. Washington’s father worked for the city water department and at a local retail score; his status as a Pentecostal minister while living in Mount Vernon apparently more an aspiration than a career (his son remembers listening to congregations consisting of no more than a handful of people). Washington’s parents divorced when he was fourteen, and his father returned to Virginia, continuing his ministerial work until his death in 1991.
The pivotal figure in Washington’s life was his mother. A beautician who owned and operated a series of shops, her extroverted personality and entrepreneurial pluck were traits she passed on to her son. In a brief autobiographical sketch published in 2006, Washington described the job his mother got for him at a local barbershop when he was 11 or 12:
The place was run by a man named Jack Coleman, who took me on as a kindness to my mother. At least that’s how I always look back on it. I thought it was the best job in the world. I had all kinds of hustles back then. You walked into the shop and I could tell right away how much money you had. I’d check out your shoes and I’d just know. I’d have people bringing me their dry cleaning and I’d take it out and deliver it back to their house. I’d run all kinds of errands. They’d step out of Mr. Coleman’s chair and I’d be on them with a whisk broom, brushing off their collars saying, ‘Man how you doin’ today?’ Or ‘Man, you look good.’ There was money to be made all day long, especially if you were respectful and solicitous.
Somewhere, Booker T. Washington was smiling.
As Lennis Washington was quick to recognize, however, her divorce had a destabilizing effect on her son. He rejected his childhood piety – forbidden by his father to go to the movies, he sneaked out to see blaxploitation movies like Superfly (1972) – and began getting into fights. Though he had never been a particularly good student, she managed to get him admitted to New Windsor Oakland Academy, a school for largely affluent and white students in upstate New York. Washington’s primary interests in high school were athletic rather than artistic (he played football and basketball), though he did play piano in a rock band and experimented with acting at summer YMCA camps.
His grades, however, did not improve enough to gain him admission to Yale or substantial enough of a scholarship to attend Boston University, two schools he hoped to attend. Instead, he enrolled at Fordham University in 1972. He initially was pre-med, but his academic performance was so weak that he dropped out for a while. Working at a post office and as a sanitation worker led him to return. He refocused his academic career by majoring in journalism – and, after a successful stint doing theatrical work as a counselor at the YMCA camp he attended as a child, drama. Landing lead roles in a university productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakepeare’s Othello proved pivotal. It led him, while still an undergraduate, to a part in Wilma, a made-for-TV movie in which he portrayed the boyfriend of legendary track star Wilma Rudolph (played by Cicely Tyson). It was in making the movie that he met Paulette Pearson, the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Following his graduation from Fordham, Washington won a scholarship for graduate work at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco. This was a three-year program for those who successfully made the cut for the second year, which he did. But Washington’s growing restlessness led him to strike out on his own in Los Angeles, where work was hard to find. He did manage to land a role in the 1981 film Carbon Copy, in which he played the long-lost black son of a white man (George Segal). But that film sank without a trace. So he returned to New York, and sought stage roles. In what proved to be a fruitful success, he portrayed Malcolm X in When Chickens Come Home to Roost, a 1981 off-Broadway production that caught the attention of many critics, as well as the aspiring Spike Lee, who nursed a lifelong ambition of making a biopic of Civil Rights leader. Another role that would lead to a movie part was Washington’s appearance in the original 1981 production of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, which he would reprise in the 1984 Norman Jewison film A Soldier’s Story.
It was in television, however, that Washington would win the fame and financial security that he would leverage, like Clint Eastwood and Daniel Day-Lewis, into a movie career. As Dr. Philip Chandler in the long-running NBC series St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), Washington established a paradigmatic identity as an intelligent, accomplished, and imperfect professional. A recurrent character in an ensemble that included future stars Helen Hunt, Alfre Woodard, Mark Harmon and others, the show followed a set of doctors working at a beleaguered Boston hospital, and was one of the most successful dramas of the 1980s.
Washington was able to use time off from the show to squeeze in a few movies. In the 1984 TV production License to Kill, he played the supporting role a young prosecutor who needs all his wits in parrying a defense lawyer representing a drunk driver. In addition to Jewison’s (low-budget) film version of A Soldier’s Story, Washington also won a small but juicy role as a corrupt politico in Sidney Lumet’s Power (1986). That movie proved to be a commercial and critical disappointment. So was Cry Freedom, a 1987 Richard Attenborough film about white South African journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and his relationship with anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko (Washington). Though the movie was much criticized for its lopsided focus on the Woods rather than the more compelling Biko, Washington was repeatedly singled out for praise in a performance notable for his mastery of a South African accent.
By this point, he was a full-time screen actor. Washington made a pair of British projects that were not widely seen. In the maundering For Queen and Country (1988) he plays a veteran of the Falklands War who returns to his South London ghetto only to find that in the newly Thatcherite Great Britain, the St. Lucia-born soldier is no longer a British citizen. That same year he starred in the light-hearted The Mighty Quinn as a police chief on an unnamed Caribbean island – another nice job with an accent – who juggles corrupt politicians while trying to protect a childhood con-artist friend framed for a much more serious crime.
But if Washington had made it as an actor by the end of the eighties, he had not yet broken through as a movie star, notwithstanding the praise of informed observers like Roger Ebert. The turning point came in 1989 with his work in yet another ensemble project, the Edward Zwick Civil War film Glory, based on the real-life exploits of the African-American Massachusetts 54th Regiment. For his performance as Trip, a misanthropic runaway slave, Washington received an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. From that point on, he would be a headliner.
But not an especially prominent one. While Washington would continue to generate critical praise with ambitious performances in movies like Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Mississippi Masala (1992), these were still relatively small-scale productions. Conversely, his big-budget projects of the time, Heart Condition (1990) and Ricochet (1991), were widely considered critical and commercial flops. He did receive an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for Malcolm X (1992), a movie with real artistic (and, to a lesser degree, box-office) heft. But reviews were mixed in his next turn as Don Pedro in the Kenneth Branagh production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993). As one Washington biographer has noted, “Washington was at a crossroads in his career. Each of his movies up to that point either had an all-African American cast or been a box office disappointment. Washington needed to star in movies that would get mass exposure among whites as well as blacks. Then he would cross over to being viewed simply as an actor, regardless of his race.”While this is not exactly true – Glory did not feature an all black cast, and, as we’ve seen, Washington had played roles that were not specifically written for African Americans – he had not quite managed to hit that sweet spot of racial integration without a sacrifice of racial identity.
Beginning in 1993, however, Washington appeared in a string of projects that did achieve this. Some of them, like Philadelphia, (1993) were hailed as great films. Others, like Crimson Tide (1995), were slickly made popcorn movies that sold buckets of tickets. Still others, like The Siege (1998), were controversial (in this case, for its portrayal of Muslims). And a few, like Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), were expensive box-office duds. But Washington gained the marquee status of people at the very top his profession, a stratosphere inhabited by stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise. And there’s some reason to think he will outlast all of them.
Of course, the primary point here is not to establish Washington’s place in the Hollywood pecking order. As with all my subjects, his success is primarily important in the way it has allowed him a relatively high degree of control over his artistic choices, and what those choices reveal about him. One thing they clearly reveal is that the boy in the barbershop never disappeared: over the course of the last thirty years Washington has demonstrated a remarkable work ethic as one of the most tireless actors in Hollywood, and one with a large appetite for making money (though that has never been an overriding concern). What they also show is the unique degree to which Washington has embodied the material hopes, fears, and values of a rising black middle class in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. This is something that merits a closer look.
Coming Soon: Washington as a professional playing professionals