Before the 1950s, African-Americans did not appear in leading roles in American movies, with the odd exception like Jackie Robinson playing himself in the low-budget 'The Jackie Robinson Story' (1950). It took Sidney Poitier to become the cinema's Jackie Robinson, the color barrier-breaker. Poitier did his best to slog through a series of socially relevant movies, all designed to comment safely on relations between blacks and whites, including 'The Defiant Ones' (1958), 'In the Heat of the Night' (1967) and 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' (1967). And so Poitier's career has become more historically important than it is interesting.
All this really wasn't so long ago in the grand scheme of things, and when 25 year-old Denzel Washington broke into movies in 1981, things hadn't changed much. His striking demeanor quickly caused him to be cast in more of those noble, socially relevant-type movies, like 'A Soldier's Story' (1984), as anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko in 'Cry Freedom' (1987) and as a black Civil War soldier in 'Glory' (1989). I suppose it goes without saying that those, and other movies of the time, focused on white characters in the lead roles and were directed by whites.
Nonetheless, Washington received two Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for 'Cry Freedom' and 'Glory' -- winning for the latter -- and became someone to watch. But as he rose to leading roles, it became clear that no one was sure what to do with him. No one wanted to test him, or to sully him. He was on his way to becoming an upright inspiration. He was tried out in some minor crime movies and action movies. Spike Lee cast him as a jazz musician in 'Mo' Better Blues' (1990), but seemed afraid to let Washington do anything; it was a very passive role. (Lee was apparently attempting to correct the negative portrayal of black jazz musicians in films like 'Round Midnight' and 'Bird'.) Even Lee's 'Malcolm X' (1992) seemed to lack a certain passionate ferocity. Rather, this Malcolm had a dazzling smile.
He was paired up with another superstar, Julia Roberts, in 'The Pelican Brief' (1993), but the movie was too timid to allow an interracial romance. He was in another socially relevant movie, 'Philadelphia' (1993), but as a second banana to Tom Hanks' more show-offy role. Even today, Washington still plays inspirational roles of noble origin ('Courage Under Fire,' 'Rmember the Titans,' 'Antwone Fisher,' etc.), but in the mid-1990s there came a crucial turning point that allowed him to finally stretch his wings, to prove that he could be commanding in a slightly devious, deviant way. He was not just an admirable role model; he was a human being.
That role, Washington's best, was as Easy Rawlins in 'Devil in a Blue Dress' (1995). It came from a unique, best-selling crime novel by the African-American author Walter Mosley, which president Clinton had claimed was his favorite book. The African-American filmmaker Carl Franklin adapted the screenplay and directed. The story is set in 1948 Los Angeles. Rawlins is a WWII veteran who has just lost his job and takes up detective work to pay the rent. He's hired to find a missing white woman (Jennifer Beals), who is thought to be hiding out somewhere in the city's black neighborhoods. Of course, no detective story is just about a missing woman, and Easy's investigation leads to much bigger trouble.
In the film, Washington gets to act tough, get himself into trouble, have sex, and generally wander around in a sleazy environment, rather than a squeaky clean one. The movie delves into a vivid underworld that's a part of, but separate from, Los Angeles. It moves to its own beat. Don Cheadle also makes a memorable impression as "Mouse," Easy's violent, trigger-happy pal who helps out on the investigation. Unfortunately, despite all the good stuff going for it, the movie just didn't catch on, and it has been relegated to "sleeper" status. That left a series of unfilmed Mosley/Rawlins books, which, frankly, would have been cool. Imagine the depths Washington could have reached by playing this character again and again.
Later, Washington fought to add more rage and passion to his roles, even while stuck in rigid things like 'The Hurricane' (1999), which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination. Another major breakthrough came in Antoine Fuqua's 'Training Day' (2001), which probably should have been just another thriller that came and went at the box office. Instead, it showed Washington's most powerfully sadistic role, a cop reveling in his bad behavior and lording it over his young trainee (Ethan Hawke). Washington not only has the skill to enjoy this kind of portrayal, but also to control it and use it as power; he never goes over the top and never breaks his rhythm. It lands second after 'Devil in a Blue Dress,' however, thanks to a fairly weak ending.
Washington's filmography remains spotty, partly because he remains devoted to unsuitable, overly serious directors like Norman Jewison, Edward Zwick, as well as the bombastic Tony Scott. But he has managed to repeat his intense, fallible characters from time to time, in films like Carl Franklin's 'Out of Time' (2003), in which his character has an affair with a married woman and steals confiscated drug money; as a shady, cocky cop in Spike Lee's 'Inside Man' (2006), as a powerful drug lord in Ridley Scott's 'American Gangster' (2007), and -- perhaps best of all -- as a futuristic badass in Allen and Albert Hughes' 'The Book of Eli' (2010), perhaps his first honest-to-goodness genre film outside of 'Devil in a Blue Dress.'
More than anything, Washington has struggled with the "likability" factor in Hollywood. Every leading man and woman struggles with it: they would like to play darker, more interesting characters, but must worry about the public's perception of them. But as a pivotal African-American movie star, Washington and his collaborators must perhaps think three times before trying anything darker or more interesting. It's incredibly admirable that he has tried, and has succeeded. Poitier showed America that African-Americans were good people. Washington has gone one further, showing that, good or bad, they are people.