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DENZEL WASHINGTON

Denzel Washington Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington is not only one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, but clearly one of the best faces forward(literally) in the African-American community. He has and continues to cast the community in a positive light not only through his mostly positive roles in movies but in his real life too as a devoted father and husband. From his own accounts, he was largely influenced by another black movie icon Sidney Poitier, who was also the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier also played dignified roles in movies and later went on to produce and direct films. He advised Denzel earlier in his career to pick and choose movies if he could, instead of jumping on any available role. He told him, "Son, your first three or four films will dictate how you are viewed your entire career. Choose wisely, follow your gut and wait it out if you can." His wisdom paid off big time for Denzel!! But eventhough Denzel has gone on to become one of Hollywood's biggest names, very few realize the difficult path he has had to endure to get there.

Denzel Washington was born on December 28th 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York. His father Reverend Denzel Washington Sr. was a Pentecostal Church Minister while his mother Lennis owned and operated a nearby beauty parlor where she worked as a beautician at the time of Denzel's birth. Denzel was the 2nd born of three children, older sister Lorie and later younger brother David. In the mid 50's the American economy was booming. This was just after the U.S. and its Allies triumphed in World War II. New technologies and industries were expanding which led to new products hitting the U.S. marketplace. This was when products like televisions and dishwashers entered the American household. Automobile production and affordable housing were also on the rise. Americans in the 50's were clearly living the American dream of economic success and freedom. This however only held true for white America. On the other side of the fence, the black American experience was more of a nightmare than a dream. Racial segregation was still prevalent and blacks were subjected to substandard facilities.

Strangely enough, Mt. Vernon where Denzel lived did not experience that kind of racial disparity. His middle class neighbourhood seemed to house different races in relative peace. Denzel fondly remembers growing up alongside Irish, Italian, West Indian and black kids and getting along just fine. His parents ran a very disciplined household, which is quite expected given the fact that his father was a church minister. Smoking, drinking alcohol and swearing were forbidden and would explain why Denzel turned out the way he did. When he was 6 years old he joined the Boys Club(now part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America). This was a place for neighbourhood boys to go after school and on saturdays to play sports or just hang out. At the Boys Club, Denzel found a home away from home. Years later he would credit the Boys Club as one of the cornerstones of his success. Eventhough he was just an average student in Elementary school, he thrived at the Vernon Boys Club playing football and basketball.

At 12 years old, he started working at the local barber shop doing odd jobs to give him some pocket money. This was a good character-building move for him because it taught him how to be independent---make and spend your own money. 2 years later when he was just 14, sad news hit his family. His parents separated and later divorced. This once thriving family had degenerated into a single-parent household, with all the burden falling squarely on his mother's shoulders. As expected, the young Denzel was negatively affected by this new development. This was manifested in the type of kids he began hanging out with. Reports have it that after his parents divorced, Denzel hung out with rough neighbourhood kids, most of whom ended up in jail. In fact many neighbourhood residents were surprised that he never once got arrested alongside his friends.

His mother Lennis had no illusions as to where his now wayward son was headed so she started looking for ways to keep him out of trouble. Her solution came in the name of a private boarding school in New Windsor, New York called The Oakland Academy. This college preparatory school would be the perfect way to get her son out of the tough crowds he was hanging around. She scraped hard to find money for this upper middle-class all-boys school because she knew it was the only way out for the young Denzel. In 1968, Denzel enrolled at The Oakland Academy riding on a partial scholarship. At Oakland he got more interested in sports than academics and as a result his grades suffered. When he finally graduated in 1972, his grades were not high enough to get him into his college choice Boston University. He therefore settled for Fordham University in New York City. At Fordham he initially settled for Pre-Medicine but quickly realized it was not his calling. Later in life when asked about his Pre-Med exploits at Fordham, he quipped, "I could not only not say the name of one of the courses I had to take----chordaemorphogenesis---but I definitely couldn't pass it."

His freshman year at Fordham was academically dismal. The summer following his sophomore year, he got a job as a counsellor at a YMCA camp in Lakeville, Connecticut. As one of the camp's counsellors, he was supposed to supervise sports and organize camp talent shows. Also as part of the camp, the counsellors would stage a play for the campers. It was during this plays that Denzel found his passion in life. He performed so well in the plays that he stunned both campers and fellow counsellors alike. He too was stunned at how comfortable he was on stage performing in front of an audience, especially given that he had a background devoid of movies or other forms of theatrical performances. The positive feedback he got from the campers and fellow counselors was welcome news for him because his dismal 2 college years had let him questioning whether he could do anything right. When he returned to Fordham at the end of the summer camp, among his first duties were to change his Major from Pre-Med to Journalism, which in his opinion, was more geared towards a career in the performing arts.

In Denzel's mind, Journalism has a close resemblance to acting because just like in movies, an investigative reporter has to go out there and research before presenting the news. This is quite similar to what actors do with their various roles. The following summer he enrolled in a drama workshop conducted by Robinson Stone, a Professor of English & Dramatic Literature at Fordham University. The drama workshop would help him learn the basics of acting. Stone was already an established name in the movie industry, having appeared in Stalag 17, the 1953 award-winning movie, among others. In the Fall of 1975 when Denzel came back for his junior year at Fordham after the drama workshop, he added Drama to his major field of study Journalism. He strongly believed the two were closely related. That same year when the Drama Department was doing a play titled Emperor Jones, Denzel auditioned for and won the lead role in the play. He played the main character Brutus Jones who escapes from a chain gang and eventually becomes King of Haiti. After his stellar performance in the play, Professor Robinson Stone remarked that Denzel was "the best actor he had seen onstage". Quite expectedly, such high accolades coming from a respected film name lit some serious fire under the young Denzel's behind. He had finally found his niche.

During his senior year at Fordham, he landed yet another lead role in Shakespeare's play Othello. Once again his performance was breathtaking and at this juncture his mind must have been ticking "hell, I can do this for a living!!". Professor Stone was once again so impressed with Denzel's performance in Othello that he started inviting talent agents to come and watch him. Before long, the young Denzel landed a contract with William Morris Agency, who gave him his first role as a professional actor. His first professional acting role was in the television movie Wilma which was centered on the life of African-American female athlete Wilma Rudolph, who endured polio as a child and still went on to win 3 gold medals at the 1960 Olympics. Denzel played Wilma's boyfriend Robert Eldridge. The movie aired in 1977, the same year he graduated from Fordham University. Television was a different experience for Denzel because he had gotten used to performing in front of and feeding off live audiences. In television however, there was no live audience and he had to perform in front of a camera. At first this change caused him some awkwardness but he quickly adapted to it. He still preferred theatre plays over movies though.

It was on the set of Wilma that he met Pauletta Pearson, whom he would later marry. In the movie, Pauletta was playing Mae Faggs, a runner and close friend of Wilma Rudolph. Also in 1977, Denzel left New York City to attend the American Conservatory Theatre(ACT) located in San Francisco, California. The ACT is a well known training ground for actors and entry there is very tough. Denzel was among the 45 students accepted that year out of thousands of hopefuls. After one year at the ACT, he grew increasingly restless because he felt with his talent he could get an acting role right away. Plus he was right there in California which is the home of movies. But it turned out to be tougher than he thought. Getting movie roles was very difficult as there was such a stiff competition for the roles--much stiffer than he had anticipated. Seeing that it would take him too long to get a movie role, he decided to head back to New York in 1978 to do what he loved most--theatrical plays.

Back in New York, his financial struggles continued as he tried to secure a steady source of income from acting. He continued to audition and won several parts in plays but still nothing that could support him financially. In 1979 he won a co-starring role in the TV movie Flesh and Blood. Eventhough this turned out to be a better role than his previous ones, it too never gave him enough money. With his money blues seemingly endless, he even began entertaining the idea of dropping acting altogether. In fact it was his strong girlfriend and now constant companion Pauletta who encouraged him to hang in there and keep auditioning for parts. Her good advice paid off in 1981 when Denzel won the lead role to play Malcolm X in an off-Broadway production of When The Chickens Come Home To Roost. The play was centered on the life of Malcolm X, the famed U.S. civil rights activist. This play in many ways ushered Denzel into a new era of professional acting in that eventhough it did not bring him a lot of money, he caught a lot of people's eyes for his almost perfect portrayal of Malcolm X. He even received an Audelco(Audience Development Committee) Award for his portrayal of Malcolm X. Audelco is an organization that promotes African-American theatre and arts. After this performance, the sky was the limit for Denzel as roles started pouring in. When the chickens come home to roost was thanks to the blossoming civil rights movement that opened up New York theatres to black plays. Before that all plays were geared towards white audiences, so it bacame very difficult for talented minorities like Denzel to get roles.

A few weeks after his success with When the chickens come home to roost, he won another big part in A Soldier's Play. Here he played Private First Class Melvin Peterson in this murder mystery that takes place at a fictional army base in Louisiana, home of some African-American soldiers serving under white commanders during WWII. Racism is a core part of the play and comes to a head when an African-American drill sergeant is murdered. Denzel gives a dazzling performance that earns him an Obie Award. This award honours excellence in an off-Broadway production. His first movie role came in Carbon Copy, a comedy aimed at racial stereotypes. In this movie Denzel plays Roger Porter, a 17 year old high school student who claims to be the illegitimate son of a wealthy businessman. Eventhough he had high hopes for the movie, it crashed at the Box Office. It won him 2 important things though, the eyes of TV producer Bruce Paltrow(father of actress Gwyneth Paltrow) who in 1982 was looking for an African-American actor to fill a spot in his TV movie series St. Elsewhere. The show takes place in a fictional Boston Hospital, where Denzel(Dr. Phillip Chandler) would be one of the Doctors. Denzel liked the idea because it would portray blacks in positive light for once. In addition to that, the TV series would provide him and Pauletta with the much needed steady paycheck. He thus took Bruce up on his offer.

The following year(1983) Denzel and Pauletta got married and in 1984 welcomed their first child John David. That same year, A Soldier's Play was adapted into a movie script A Soldier's Story and Denzel was again offered the part of Private Peterson. There was much skepticism as to whether the critically acclaimed play would fair equally well as a movie. The movie went on to do well, eventhough it was still overshadowed by the play version. After A Soldier's Story, Denzel went back to TV, this time playing the lead role in the TV movie The George McKenna Story which aired in 1986. It was based on the true story of McKenna, a George Washington High School Principal in a crime- infested school. Also in 1986, he played a role in the movie Power alongside Richard Gere. In this movie, Denzel plays Arnold Billings, a political lobbyist. Eventhough the role is clearly intended for a white actor, Denzel does it brilliantly. The movie however crashed at the Box Office.

In 1987, one of his biggest career years, he won a lead role in the movie Cry Freedom about Apartheid in South Africa. In the movie Denzel played Steve Biko, a South African who crusaded against Apartheid and was later killed in prison in 1977. The movie's director, Sir Richard Attenborough who had won an Academy Award for Best Picture for the film Gandhi in 1982, was attracted to Denzel after his performance in A Soldier's Story. Like he had done in When The Chickens Come Home To Roost with Malcolm X, Denzel portrayed almost perfectly Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Cry Freedom but did not win. The following year, 1988, Denzel and Pauletta welcomed their first daughter Katia. In 1989, Denzel starred in the British film For Queen and Country which also centered on the black plight in England. He played Reuben Jones, who returns to South London after fighting for his country in the Falklands War. He hopes to return to a country full of appreciation but is rudely shocked when he is still treated as a 2nd class citizen because he is black. In this film, Denzel has to learn both British and Carribean accents and does that extremely well. The movie however did not catch much steam in the U.S. and remained a Box Office dissapointment.

Also in 1989, he won another role in a foreign movie called The Mighty Quinn. Once again he has to master the Carribean accent as he plays Xavier Quinn, a police chief on a peaceful Carribean Island. The police chief suspects one of his closest friends in the murder of a wealthy white businessman. This movie also followed the all too familiar trend of Denzel's movies----much acclaim for Denzel but little to show for at the Box Office. It was time for Denzel to rock the Box Office!! His major assault at the Box Office came the same year(1989), when he won a role in the blockbuster movie Glory. In this celebrated American movie, Denzel plays Trip, a tough and bitter runaway slave. The movie is based on the American Civil War and revolves around the true life story of Col. Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the first African-American regiment. This movie presents a big change for Denzel who had all along been against playing stereotypical black roles. In this movie, he strongly believed and I certainly concurr, that his role would enlighten many people to the horrors of slavery in the U.S. I have to admit that Glory is not only in my opinion Denzel's finest movie performances to date, but one of my all-time personal favourites too. This movie was widely seen by both black and white audiences making it a Box Office Smash hit. For Glory Denzel won an Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor. This was a huge step forward for Denzel and blacks in general as he became only the 2nd African-American to win an Academy Award. In addition to the Academy Award and the Golden Globe, he also won the NAACP Image Award for his role in Glory.

In 1990 he went on to play roles in movies that didn't do quite for example, Heart Condition and Mo' Better Blues. In 1990 he formed his own production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, after his home street in Mt. Vernon, New York. One of Mundy Lane's first projects was a documentary film Chasing a Dream that played on TBS, winning an Emmy Award. From there Denzel went back to the theatre and shyed away from movies for a while. He came back in 1991 in the action thriller Ricochet that crashed at the Box Office. However staying true to his other movie pattern, he was widely praised for his performance in the movie. Also in 1991, he starred in Mississippi Masala, an interracial(black and Indian) love story. This movie didn't do well at the Box Office but like in all others, Denzel was widely praised for his performance. The biggest news for the Washingtons in 1991 however was the birth of their twin children Malcolm and Olivia.

In 1992 plans were underway to adapt the script of the play When The Chickens Come Home To Roost into a movie called Malcolm X. There was no secret as to who would be chosen to play Malcolm X, especially after the success of the play version. The movie was anticipated to rock the Box Office eventhough there were fears that Malcolm X's radical politics might scare away white audiences. In addition to that, the movie would be directed by Spike Lee, another outspoken black New Yorker. Eventhough Denzel's role in this movie was considered by many an easy one because of his success 11 years before, it was anything but. He took his role very seriously and researched even deeper, spending time with Malcolm X's close family and friends. He also immersed himself in the practices of the Nation of Islam. In fact commenting later on his role in the upcoming film he said, "Everything I have done as an actor has been in preparation for this." This shows you the level of commitment and focus he had for this role. Eventhough he never subscribed to Malcolm's radical views he said, "My desire, my prayer is for this film to show how a man or a woman can evolve even when the worst things happen to you, even when you've been taught to hate."

The movie attracted wide audiences across all racial boundaries, many of whom were curious to know just who Malcolm the man was. The film won the 1992 Berlin Film Festival Award for Best Picture. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but never won. As for Denzel himself he won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, Best Actor from the Chicago Film Critics, The Silver Bear Award from the Berlin Film Festival, and the Boston Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor. In addition, he was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor but never won. By the end of 1992, Denzel was riding so high that People magazine had incorporated his name into the list of "Twenty Five Most Intriguing People" in the world. It was evident that through his movie roles, Denzel had made his mark around the world. After the Malcolm X movie, Denzel admitted that he was exhausted so he dissolved into lighter roles like Prince Don Pedro in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Don Pedro's part, which again had been written for a white actor, was played brilliantly by Denzel.

His next movie was The Pelican Brief starring alongside Hollywood sweetheart Julia Roberts. In this movie he played Gray Grantham, an investigative reporter for the Washington Herald newspaper. Their lives(his & Roberts' who plays a law student) intersect when 2 U.S. Supreme Court Justices are murdered. The movie was widely viewed by audiences across all racial lines so it ended up being a Box Office smash hit, grossing upwards of $100 million. The movie put Denzel in true Hollywood celebrity status in that he almost became colourless. His movies after that began attracting large audiences across all racial lines unlike before when his audience was almost exclusively black. Big Hollywood names also started lining up to do movies with him. He followed up his success in The Pelican Brief with another Box Office smash hit Philadelphia, this time starring alongside another Hollywood big-timer Tom Hanks. At issue in Philadelphia was AIDS & homosexuality, hot button topics in America at that time. Audiences were watching closely to see how the movie would address these two contentious issues. Inevitably the movie also ended up being a Box Office smash hit, earning Tom Hanks an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1993.

With successes in both The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia Denzel took a little breather and came back in 1995 in the movie Crimson Tide, starring alongside yet another Hollywood great, and one of my personal favourites, Gene Hackman. In this movie he plays Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, second in command to submarine Commander Captain Frank Ramsey(Hackman). Their strong personalities collide on board the submarine as the two heavyweights struggle for control of the vessel. This movie also rocked the Box Office grossing some $92 million. For Crimson Tide Denzel won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture. Also in 1995 he co-produced Devil in a Blue Dress and won another NAACP Image Award for it. This was Mundy Lane Entertainment's first feature film. The movie did not do well at the Box Office. That same year(1995) he played in the action thriller Virtuosity alongside another Hollywood great Russel Crowe. The movie however crashed at the Box Office. After his 3 movies in 1995, the exhausted Denzel and his family took a much deserved vacation to mother Africa. He had this to say about 1995, "I won't ever again have three pictures out in one year. Its just too much....Thats why I started planning that trip."

While in Africa they visited Kenya, Tanzania and the Island of Zanzibar. Later the Washingtons travelled to South Africa where they were welcomed by then President Nelson Mandela. This in many ways was an appreciation by Mandela on behalf of South Africans for Denzel's role in the movie Cry Freedom which helped bring the world's attention to the evils of Apartheid in South Africa. In South Africa, Denzel and Pauletta also renewed their marriage vows. The ceremony was performed by none other than famous South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Back in the U.S. his next role was in the 1996 movie Courage Under Fire. By this time he was such a big star that it became commonplace for him to star along Hollywood's finest. In Courage Under Fire he starred alongside another Hollywood sweetheart Meg Ryan. In this military drama, he plays Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling, who inadvertently causes the deaths of some of his troops, including a close friend. The plot unfolds as he deals with his guilt. The movie was a major Box Office smash hit and earned Denzel another Image Award from the NAACP.

After Courage Under Fire he did A Preacher's Wife alongside singer-actress Whitney Houston. The movie got lukewarm reviews and needless to say, crashed at the Box Office. His next movie role came in the 1998 movie Fallen. Here he plays Detective John Hobbes, a good cop who is responsible for the conviction of a serial killer Edgar Reese. This movie also crashed at the Box Office. Also in 1998, Denzel starred in He Got Game which was produced by Spike Lee. The movie revolves around a father and his son and the sometimes corrupt world of intercollegiate sports. Also in the 1998 he played a part in The Siege alongside another Hollywood heavyweight Bruce Willis and Annette Benning. In this movie he plays FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony Hubbard who directs the FBI into finding the reasons responsible for the series of terrorist attacks launched on New York City. The movie drew large audiences and did very well at the Box Office.

In 1999, he starred in Bone Collector with actress Angelina Jolie. In this murder mystery he plays Lincoln Rhyme, a brilliant detective injured in the line of duty and having to work with his paralysis. The movie didn't fare very well at the Box Office. Still in 1999, he starred in The Hurricane, where he played middle weight boxer Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter. The movie was based on the true life story of Rubin Carter, who was wrongly accused of rape in 1967 and sentenced to life in prison only to be released in 1986 after serving 19 years. Racism is at the core of the movie. Like he had done with Malcolm X, and Steve Biko in earlier movies, Denzel made a very strong portrayal of Rubin Carter in this movie. For that he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor plus an NAACP Image Award . He was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor but never won.

In 2000 Denzel starred in the movie Remember The Titans, also based on a true story. In this movie he plays High School coach Boone who is charged with the difficult task of intergrating T.C. Williams High School Football Team. Racial tensions dominate the film. The movie did very well at the Box Office. After that came the much talked about Training Day in 2001 that finally Denzel the film industry's most coveted prize--an Academy Award for Best Actor. In this film he played a crooked cop Alonzo Harris, an obvious delineation from his mostly positive roles. This was a good break for him because it got to showcase his acting talent. In other words, he could take any role, good or bad and do it well. His Academy Award(Oscar) made him only the second African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor after Sidney Poitier. In 2002 he starred in John Q. In this movie he plays John Q Archibald, a factory worker whose son needs a heart transplant but cannot afford it. In desperation, he holds the entire hospital hostage and demands that they perform the operation on his son. The movie did very well at the Box Office because at that time Health Insurance was a hot topic of debate in America.

I wish Denzel all the best in his future acting endeavours but like many other fans worldwide, I require no further convincing from him. I feel he left his mark on the film industry way before he got the Oscar in 2001. He will go down in history as one of the most accomplished actors in U.S. history. For his black people in particular, he will always be remembered for roles such as Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Trip in (Glory) plus numerous others that helped highlight the plight of blacks in America and worldwide. He is a living role model for young blacks who can look up to him and see that you can be happily married and deeply religious, and still be "cool". He remains a very popular figure worldwide, the numbers of course skewed by the large number of females who admire him for reasons other than his movies. My only advise to them is---Sorry, he is taken--Happily taken!!!

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