Denzel Washington is one of the most recognized actors in Hollywood, and deservedly so. He has a capacity to portray both the good and the bad in his characters. His roles often highlight the complexity of the human condition. His latest role is one of a flawed hero in the movie Flight which hit theaters November 2. Once again he is receiving high praise for his work.
How does Denzel Washington achieve such convincing acting? Well much of it is pure talent and hard work, but part of it comes from his own background as well. Denzel has seen both good and bad in his life, and knows the importance of being humble and knowing your weaknesses.
Let’s take a look at Denzel’s life and the values he tries to carry with him.
Denzel was born and raised in New York City area. He is familiar with urban life. His dad was a pentecostal minister who worked two day jobs to make ends meet. His mother was a beauty parlor owner.
When Denzel was 14 his parents’ marriage fell apart. Denzel started to spend more time on the streets with his friends and started to get into trouble. His mom decided to send him to a military boarding school in upstate New York in order to get him off the streets.
“That decision changed my life,” Washington later told Parade Magazine, “because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”
At the school Denzel became more focused on his studies and became more interested in learning about what was going on in the bigger world. He especially credits one of his teachers with challenging him to read the newspaper every day and to read things that widened his horizons.
In spite of his parents’ divorce Denzel also carried a strong love for his Christian faith. He said that throughout his life he has considered becoming a preacher or minister himself.
One habit he has strived to continue each day has been to read the Bible and spend personal time in prayer. He credits this habit as something that has helped him stay humble and keep the important things in life in focus.
After high school, Denzel enrolled at Fordham University with the intention of studying medicine, but found that he did not have the passion for this career that the intense studies required. He also felt he was not smart enough for this career. He took a semester off to think about where he wanted to go in life.
During this time Denzel took a job in YMCA camp in Connecticut and helped direct the arts programs there. When he participated in a talent show for staff and campers several people suggested he try acting.
Washington returned to Fordham University and enrolled in the downtown New York City campus to study acting. He began to get parts in major Broadway plays and received very positive reviews. He graduated from Fordham in 1977 with a degree in Drama and Journalism.
After a year of graduate studies in Drama in San Francisco he returned to New York City to dedicate himself full time to acting. Little by little his career was taking off. He began to get parts in TV films and then Hollywood films over the next four or five years and received further acclaim for his skills.
Denzel has played successful roles in many TV series (his first big series was a starring role as Dr. Chandler in St. Elsewhere from 1982 to 1988), Broadway plays, and Hollywood movies.
Some of his leading roles have been in such movies as Malcom X (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), Remember the Titans (2000), Training Day (2001) (He won an Academy Award for his part in this movie), Man on Fire (2004), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), American Gangster (2007), and the Book of Eli (2007). But the list is much longer than this.
His recent movies have included Unstoppable (2009) and Safe House (2012), as well as the newest movie, Flight.
The characters that Denzel plays are often quite complex. Some are historical figures and some are fictional. But Denzel always seems to make them come alive for audiences. He draws the audience into the dilemmas the character is facing and creates empathy for both the flaws and the strengths of his characters.
Perhaps this ability comes in part from Denzel’s own experience and his ability to reflect on where his life could have gone if he had not had a few more opportunities than some of his friends.
Denzel’s ability to look at the more important things in life have apparently served him well in marriage as well. His marriage with his first and only wife (Pauletta, whom he met on the set of one of his first TV movies in 1977) is one of the few stable marriages in Hollywood. Denzel admits that this has not been easy, and that there have been many rough moments, but both he and his wife are committed to making their love last and try to work on the relationship every day.
There is much more we could say about Denzel Washington (his charity work, his work for peace and justice in the world, etc.) but we will end here for the moment.
Let’s just say that he is fulfilling his desire to be a preacher in a different way, by often playing roles that get us thinking about how to overcome evil in our own lives as well.
All of us may not agree 100% with every single role he has played or every single cause that Denzel embraces, but we cannot deny that he has done great work as an actor and has given a example of trying to live his Christian values in the midst of a difficult world. We pray that he will continue to hold to these values as he continues his career.
“Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5: 10)
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7: 25-27)
“But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. (Matthew 6: 5-6)
“Master, you gave me five talents. See I have made five more.” (Matthew 25: 20)
“To me, the least of all the holy ones, this grace was given to me, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ.” (Ephesians 3: 8)
“But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift… And he gave some as apostles, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 7, 11-12)
On prayer and reading the Bible:
133 The Church … exhorts all the Christian faithful… to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.
104 “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.”
1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task … The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.
1718 … “Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you.” (Saint Augustine, Confessions)
On spiritual battle:
2015 … There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.
2730 … The battle against the possessive and dominating self requires vigilance, sobriety of heart. When Jesus insists on vigilance, he always relates it to himself, to his coming on the last day and every day: : today. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; the light that must not be extinguished is that of faith: “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
On the importance of modern media:
2493 Within modern society the communications media play a major role in information, cultural promotion, and formation. This role is increasing, as a result of technological progress, the extent and diversity of the news transmitted, and the influence exercised on public opinion.
“While affirming the belief that many people involved in social communications want to do what is right, we must also recognize that those who work in this field confront special psychological pressures and ethical dilemmas which at times see commercial competitiveness compelling communicators to lower standards… which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality…” (Pope Benedict XVI, January 24, 2007)
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to raise up courageous communicators … who will … approach … the communications age not as a time of alienation and confusion, but as a valuable time for the quest of truth. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 42nd World Communications Day, May 4, 2008)
Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”.” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, April 4, 2012)
“Artists … know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, April 4, 2012)