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Denzel Washington in Supporting Roles: 3 Times Star Shined Without Being Lead Actor

Image: Denzel Washington in Supporting Roles: 3 Times Star Shined Without Being Lead Actor
Denzel Washington holds up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that he won for his role in "Glory" on March 26, 1990 in Los Angeles. (Lee Celano/Reuters/Landov)  

By    |   Wednesday, 08 Apr 2015 08:48 PM

Though best known for dominating the screen in films about powerful men, from “Malcolm X” to “The Equalizer,” Denzel Washington has at times outshined his top-billed film co-stars with the quiet force of his raw talent. Here are three roles in which he let the lead actor steal the show while he slyly seduced the audience.

1. "Glory" (1989)

Matthew Broderick starred as a Union Army captain this 1989 Civil War drama about the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. But it was Washington as escaped slave Silas Trip who took a Best Supporting Actor award, one of three Oscars the film garnered at the 62nd Academy Awards.

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writer James Berardinelli noted
that the film’s “real strength” came from its supporting ranks: “One scene in particular earned him unanimous critical praise — as Trip is being flogged for desertion, the camera moves in for a close-up of Washington's face and holds there, showing an incredible range of emotion: fury, pain, humiliation, and isolation.

Those 30 seconds are ‘Glory’s’ most powerful.”


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2. "Cry Freedom" (1987)

The British film about Apartheid-era South Africa earned Washington a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Kevin Kline takes center stage as liberal white journalist Donald Woods to Washington’s Steve Biko, a black activist who perishes in police custody following a spate of valiant rebellion in the quest for human rights, and a friendship ensues between the two men.

Aside from the logistical turning point posed by Biko’s death, one critic observed a dramatic effect that served to elevate Washington’s star power. “From here on, the movie centers on Woods — at once its major flaw. As scripted, and despite Kline's efforts, Woods pales, so to speak, against Denzel Washington's Biko. When Biko dies halfway through, so does the movie,” noted The Washington Post’s Desson Howe.

3. "Antwone Fisher" (2002)

A moving epic based on the true story of a volatile sailor struggling to overcome a horrific childhood, Washington coupled his first directorial debut with a stint as psychiatrist Jerome Davenport alongside Derek Luke in the title role. The fact it wasn’t a starring part did little to hamper his ambition, which prompted trips to San Diego naval hospitals to research the part.

While many critics hailed Washington’s directing over his Davenport, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone acknowledged that the “the uniformly fine performances are a tribute to Washington, who plays the shrink with his customary command.”

The NAACP Image Awards offered even higher praise, giving Washington its Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture award.


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Though best known for dominating the screen in films about powerful men, from “Malcolm X” to “The Equalizer,” Denzel Washington has at times outshined his top-billed co-stars with the quiet force of his raw talent. Here are three supporting roles in which he slyly seduced the audience.
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