What other Actors can learn from the maestro – By Dapo Oshiyemi

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington’s latest film the The Equalizer directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has grossed almost $200m at the box office, solidifying Denzel’s position as an Hollywood A-Lister and one of most powerful and highest paid actors on the planet. This means over his three decade career, the two-time Oscar-winning actor has managed to generate over $2bn at the box office but what’s so impressive about Denzel’s Box office performance is the fact that he has managed to achieve this without the usual tentpole fare and superhero franchises that most A-Lister’s thrive on.

American Gangster
American Gangster is Denzel’s highest grossing film at $267m

Most film executives agree that when you put Denzel in adult focused thrillers and dramas you are almost certain to hit gold. In fact no film starring Washington has opened to less than $20 million since 2003’s “Out of Time”. This is not to say Denzel has not had a few mishaps along the way but by and large he has managed to secure many more successes in his career than failures and that is no easy feat in the fickle film business.

So what makes Denzel so extraordinary? And what can up and coming actors especially black actors learn from Denzel’s success? Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes Denzel is blessed with good looks and has a ferocious appetite for achieving technical excellence in his craft and while one cannot downplay the importance of these attributes, I think there is a lot more to Denzel’s success than these factors, after all there are tens of thousands of good looking actors with excellent technical ability who work very hard but never make it big,  equally there are actors who are not blessed with great looks or immense technical skill who have still managed to have very successful film careers, so what are Denzel’s secrets beyond the obvious?

Well, first Denzel understands that he is in the acting business and not just in acting as a craft. He understands the global film industry’s structure and politics, the genre of films that best suit his abilities, the international film market, who his audience is and what they want and he delivers for them time after time. He has managed to balance commercial success with critical acclaim which is no mean feat considering very few A-Listers today can boast of such, the only other person that comes anywhere near Denzel in this regard is Leonardo DiCaprio and to date he has not been able to put an Oscar to his name.

Denzel & former Sony Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal
Denzel & former Sony Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal

Denzel is also fully aware that an actor’s real power and value in the film industry is determined primarily by commercial success at the box office and Studio’s and Producers pay the real big bucks to Actors who can deliver box office numbers again and again and again, this has earned him the converted A-List tag which is reversed for those rare breed of actors who can deliver hundreds of millions of dollars at the Box office and therefore they can command those $20m plus pay packets, approve Directors, cast and get films made- Now that’s real power in the film industry.

Denzel & Director Antoine Fuqua
Denzel & Director Antoine Fuqua

What fascinates me in equal measure are the choices Denzel has made in his career. He just knows what he’s great at and he can smell a good script a mile off, so where most actors have stumbled he just keeps making great choices. The ability to seek out and star in great material written by talented Writers and working with gifted established or up and coming Directors who can deliver these scripts visually has been priceless to Denzel’s career. This is an essential skill all actors should have but most don’t.

Denzel & the great Spike Lee
Denzel & the great Spike Lee

There is also something else most black actors miss that Denzel has exploited so well, and that is great material based upon black, history, culture and lifestyle told by gifted black creative’s (Writers, Directors) these gifted people know how to make black talent shine. If we take a look carefully at Denzel’s film career you will see Cry Freedom, Glory, The Hurricane, the Spike Lee films: Malcolm X, He Got Game and Mo’ Better Blues each of these films in my opinion are the most pivotal in launching Denzel into Hollywood A-List status.

That is not to say for one minute that we should discount the importance of films like Inside Man, The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia and the like on his career but I can’t help but doubt if he would have gotten those roles without being in those great black films.

Finally, no one ever achieves greatness on their own and Denzel is no exception, to excel he has built a great professional team around himself supported by family, mentors and trustworthy confidants like Sidney Poitier who he could depend on- Long may his career continue to blossom.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *