Denzel Washington in 'Safe House': Why it's good when he's bad

OPINION - For the most part, Denzel Washington has played a prototypical hero but lately, like in his new film 'Safe House' for instance, he's taken on edgier, darker -- even villainous roles, and as a fan, I think it's a great thing...

For about two decades now, Denzel Washington has been one of the most charismatic and popular A-list superstars in movies. He’s been that rare movie star unblemished by scandal and broadly respected by filmmakers and audiences. For the most part, he has played a prototypical hero but lately, like in his new film Safe House for instance, he’s taken on edgier, darker — even villainous roles, and as a fan, I think it’s a great thing.

We’ve become so accustomed to Denzel as a movie star that audiences sometimes take for granted just how incredible and groundbreaking his career has been. After a series of strong supporting turns in the 1980s, which eventually led to leading-man parts in the 1990s, Washington became the first bankable, black dramatic actor since Sidney Poitier. His success helped usher in a new generation of black male movies stars. Men like Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson all owe a debt to Denzel.

theGrio slideshow: The top 10 greatest Denzel Washington roles

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Washington’s film career, and it hardly got off to an auspicious start. His first film was a forgettable (and arguably racially insensitive) “comedy” called Carbon Copy about a wealthy white man who discovers he has an illegitimate black son. After becoming a heartthrob on the critically acclaimed NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere, Washington shined in Oscar-nominated supporting roles in historical dramas like Cry Freedom and Glory.

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Although those films failed to reach a wide audience and were criticized for telling black stories through white characters, they did help cement the Denzel Washington persona we all know and love.

Washington was a symbol of nobility and strength very much in the same mold as Sidney Poitier, with whom he is most often compared. The only striking difference between the two (at this stage of their careers) is that Poitier was never overtly a sex symbol, where Denzel unapologetically is. He is the first and only black man to be named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Still, he was never allowed to give a full-fledged star-making turn, that is until Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X.

The film and role remain Washington’s best because he was able to give his most fully-rounded performance over the course of Lee’s over 3-hour epic. He played Malcolm X not only as a martyred leader but also as the deeply flawed and angry man he often was. Washington was nominated for best actor, and he should have won, but career-wise the part changed everything. He never played second fiddle in a movie again.

Over the next ten years, Washington scored hit after hit playing ostensibly updated versions of the kinds of parts Sidney Poitier used to play. He played heroic cops (The Bone Collector), military men (Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire) and even an angel (The Preacher’s Wife). This impressive string of hits culminated with his most popular movie to that point — the Disney-produced, feel-good football movie Remember the Titans in 2000.

While Washington routinely earned strong reviews in every film in which he starred, it was around the time of Titans that some critics began to gripe that his persona was becoming a little too predictable and safe. “Denzel Washington, by now, could do this sort of role in his sleep,” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote of his performance in Remember the Titans.

Then the next year, a funny thing happened, Washington seemed to have heard the critics’ call for him to step outside his comfort zone. He took on his first outright role as a villain and knocked it out of the park. As the ruthless, corrupt and manipulative Det. Alonzo Harris in Training Day, Denzel was the most electric he’d been onscreen since Malcolm X. He was both menacing and sexy. He was also given more leeway to be funny and looser in an infectious sort of way. The role was delightfully over-the-top and Washington appeared to relish the opportunity to cut loose.

Washington finally won the best actor Academy Award for this performance and while there has been some griping over the years about the fact that he won for playing such a disreputable character, few have argued that he wasn’t excellent in the movie.
The next truly great Washington performance of the decade came in another darker role. While Washington didn’t play Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas as an outright villain in American Gangster, he certainly wasn’t someone you’d want to emulate or cross. As silently deadly as Alonzo Harris was flashy, Washington’s role was similarly acclaimed and even inspired one of Jay-Z’s best albums.

Washington’s ability to win the movie audience’s trust — earned after year’s of likable, decent and endearing roles — made him a much more intriguing ‘bad’ guy in Training Day and American Gangster. You find yourself liking him, even rooting for him, even when he’s engaging in despicable acts of criminal depravity.

Take for instance one of the most stirring scenes in Training Day. We have just witnessed Washington’s character (Alonzo Harris) brutally murder a retired cop in cold blood in order to steal his money to help pay off his gambling debts. Afterwards, his character attempts to console his straight arrow protege, played by Ethan Hawke. With his eyes watering up, he makes an apparently sincere plea for Hawke’s character to look the other way now so that in the future he can “change things”. Even though audiences have just watched him behave inappropriately throughout the film, in that moment he’s as persuasive as the lawyer he played in Philadelphia.

Similarly, Washington makes a heroin-dealing crook like Frank Lucas downright admirable in American Gangster. In his kinetic interrogation scenes alongside an emboldened Russell Crowe playing the cop who takes him down, Washington gets to play everything from playful to murderous. We believe him when he swipes a drink off a table and tells Crowe’s character, “It don’t mean nothing to me for you to show up tomorrow morning with your head blown off.”

At the same time, we’re as overjoyed as Ruby Dee’s character is, when Frank Lucas (Washington plays her son) buys her a new house. The audience knows the house has been bought with drug money and yet when Denzel flashes that trademark grin, it’s hard not to be taken in.

Which brings us to Safe House. After a couple of decent, but ultimately forgettable train-driven action movies (Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and Unstoppable), Denzel Washington is once again returning to bad guy territory and if the early reviews are any indication — it’s his best part in years.

Sidney Poitier had the unenviable burden of being the sole, positive representation of his race on the big screen for years. He almost had to play virtually flawless, almost superhuman people to compensate for a long history of hateful depictions of African-Americans in movies. He never got to play more morally complex characters and as a result, some of his classic movies are ridiculously dated by today’s standards.

Denzel Washington, on the other hand, is still expanding his range, even as he pushes 60, and he appears to be having a lot of fun exploring his darker side.

“Sometimes when you’re the good guy, you’re sort of trapped or he can’t say that. And even when you’re playing a real person, like Steven Biko or someone, you’re sort of stuck within those confines. So, yeah, bad guys do have more fun!” said Washington in a recent interview on Cinema Blend.

By working outside his comfort zone, Denzel Washington is cementing his career’s longevity for years to come and keeping audiences guessing as to what part he may take next

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard