The Dilemma of Being Denzel


Has there ever been a superstar  quite like Denzel Washington?    Here we have a movie star who doesn’t have an action franchise to fall back on like Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis,  doesn’t do superheroes and  has never worked with a critic’s darling of a director like a Scorsese, Spielberg or Tarantino.

Yet Denzel is a crossover star whose films are typically successful, commands a salary of $20 million and has two Oscars and many nominations.  All while maintaining an “everyman” image that has audiences liking him even when the part calls for him to be a creep.

Watch Flight and you’ll see a master actor at the top of his game and one still willing to take risks.   Whip Whittaker is a terrible, terrible human being.   If you thought the corrupt cop of Training Day was Denzel’s dark side showing, he hits all new lows in Flight and Whittaker doesn’t even have the attribute of being a charming rogue like Alonzo Harris.

Without spoiling the movie, it’s safe to say in Whittaker, Denzel plays a pathetic, weak and unlikable character and doesn’t try to get the audience on his side.   Whenever we want to pull for Whitaker, he finds another way to push us away.

There’s a couple of other things about Flight that surprises.  The “R” rating is well-earned with the language, nudity, sexuality and depictions of drug usage.  The movie opens with Denzel romping in bed with Nadia Vasquez in all her considerable glory.   Flashing his bare butt and going shirtless to reveal a 58-year-old body that is less toned and taut than usual makes his middle-aged alcoholic believable.  This is Denzel Unchained as he defies expectations,  bares himself (literally) and goes to some mighty dark places as Whitaker.

In 1996 People magazine named him its  Sexiest Man Alive, but a sex scene with Denzel and a White woman has proven to be elusive.   Denzel’s crossover appeal extends to being an object of attraction to both Black and White women.      As an actor, husband, father, sex symbol and credit to his race, Denzel should be on the top looking down, but  he doesn’t seem to have the same freedom of his White contemporaries to take a part without factoring how it reflects on the African-Americans audiences whose support helped make his rise from ensemble TV  actor to movie star possible.

Without going chronologically (because I’m lazy), here is a look back at some of Washington’s possible pairings with leading ladies  outside his race.

mimi_and_denzel2“Yes, I am taller than Tom Cruise. Why do you ask?”

The Mighty Quinn (1989)

Possible Hook-Up:  Mimi Rogers

Do They Hook Up?   No.  Mimi puts the moves on Big D, but he responds to the former Mrs. Tom Cruise’s amorous advances with two small words that could sum up his aversion to getting horizontal with his White co-stars: “I can’t.”

denzel_angelina“Let me show you my bedside manner, Denzel.”

The Bone Collector (1999)

Possible Hook Up:  Angelina Jolie

Do They Hook Up:  Not immediately, but its implied that they might.   Washington said of Jolie, “Well, what can I say! She’s very sexy – there’s just something about the way she moves. She’s like liquid.”


“No, honey. I’m not doing the love scene with Julia.”

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Possible Hook-Up:  Julia Roberts

Do They Hook Up?  No, though Roberts wanted to., Denzel nixed the idea of a love scene telling an interviewer,   “Black women are not often seen as objects of desire on film. And they have always been my core audience.”

Roberts is a special case.   She was thwarted in her bid to lip-lock Denzel on film, but she made up for it at the Academy Awards.  She will not be ignored!


“I waited eight years for this kiss so make it good.”

Roberts would get a second shot with a very enthusiastic reaction to Washington winning Best Actor for Training Day.   She clung to Denzel like an embedded tick even after he won the award  which had to make wife Pauletta’s eyebrows arch a bit.   It  probably was a long ride home after the parties were over.

denzel_milla“So do you like my Resident Evil movies, Denzel?”

He Got Game (1998)

Possible Hook-Up:  Milla Jovovich

Do They Hook Up?  Kinda, sorta.  Milla plays a prostitute and Denzel is a convict with…umm…”performance”  issues.  It’s implied he can’t quite do the dirty deed, but it’s obvious he wants to.


“Say Meryl, how often do you polish your Oscars?”

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Possible Hook-Up:  Meryl Streep

Do They Hook Up?   Nope.  Denzel and Meryl the Magnificent  were enemies in this one and not the kind which end up having hate sex.

denzel_kelly lynch

“I don’t care what your online poll says, Kelly. I’m still not doing a love scene.”

Virtuosity (1995)

Possible Hook-Up:  Kelly Lynch

Do They Hook Up?   No, but they were supposed to in the script until Denzil squashed it.   Lynch told The A.V. Club why.

I said, “Denzel, what is it? Why don’t you believe that the man you’re playing couldn’t be attracted to me?” I mean, it wasn’t a cheesy love story. It was actually really well-written and moving. And he said, “You know what, Kelly? I hate to say it, but, you know, white men bring women to movies, and they don’t want to watch a black man with their woman.” I was like, “What? No. Really?” He said, “No, I’m sorry, but that’s truly what it is. That’s what the audience is.” I’m like, “But how about The Bodyguard? That was a huge hit movie.” “Well, that’s different. That’s a white man. It’s different.” I said, “So that’s your main motivating factor on this?” He said, “Yes.” So the love story wasn’t a love story anymore.”

“It’s okay, Denzel. This sort of thing happens to a lot of middle-aged men.”

Fallen (1998)

Possible Hook Up:  Embeth Davitz

Do They Hook Up?    Kinda sorta.  Fallen is one of Denzel’s weirdest movie.  It’s part Seven and part The Exorcist and it’s all over the place.   The splendidly named Embeth Davitz strikes a few romantic sparks with Denzel’s John “Hobbsy” Hobbes, but like most of the White women who fall madly in bed with Denzel,  getting him between the sheets doesn’t mean you’re getting off.


“Denzel, i think the director said, ‘Cut!’ Ummm…Denzel?”

Mississippi Masala  {1991)

Possible Hook-Up:  Sarita Choudhury

Do They Hook Up?   Do they ever!    If you want to be technical, Sarita Choudhury is Indian, not White, but the racial differences between herself and Denzel’s character form the central conflict of director Mira Nair’s 1991 film.   At this point Denzil is starring in movies, but not yet a star, so he’s a little less guarded and protective of his nice guy persona.   His Demetrius Williams is a simple working stiff who falls hard for Choudhury’s exotic Mina.  Despite the age difference between the two leads (Washington was 37 and Choudhury 25 at the time) they have great chemistry and I’d forgotten how sexy they are in the love scenes.

denzel_kate vernon

“I’ll get you for this, Spike.”

Malcolm X  (1992)

Possible Hook Up: Kate Vernon

Do They Hook Up?   Yes.  Though it’s easy to forget in Spike Lee’s three-hour biopic of Malcolm X, before his enlightenment and evolution, in his “Detroit Red” days he drinks, breaks the law and bangs White women.   For all those folks dissing Denzil for crossing color lines in Flight seem to have forgotten this part of the film they argue he should have won the Best Actor award for.

Denzel_Eva Mendes

“Tell me, Eva, who’s a better kisser? Me, or Will Smith?”

Training Day  (2001)

denzel_eva mendes2

“Oh, definitely you, Denzel.”

Out of Time (2003)

Possible Hook-Up:  Eva Mendes

Do They Hook Up?   Yes and yes again.  Not only is Eva one of the few actresses to be paired with Denzel twice (Jennifer Beals is the other) she’s kicking it with him in two different movies.

“Yo dawg, whatever happened to knocking?”

Perhaps Denzel chose to work again with Mendes in the blah Out of Time after she displayed her assets in Training Day.   Not that her presence stopped those nasty rumors of an affair between Denzel and his other co-star, Sanaa Lathan.


“So i was asking Meryl how she keeps her Oscars polished….”

Inside Man  (2006)

Possible Hook-Up:  Jodie Foster

Do they Hook Up:  Nope.  Their relationship is  strictly business.   Not pleasure.  They do both wear their suits well.

So what's Edward James Olmos really like?

So what’s Edward James Olmos really like?

American Gangster (2007)

Possible Hook-Up: Lymari Nadal

Do They Hook Up?    Yes because she plays Denzel’s wife.  The Puerto Rican born beauty (and Mrs. Edward James Olmos) plays the wife of American Gangster, Frank Lucas.

denzel_mila kunis2

No, dammit! I didn’t order no White girl from room service.”

The Book of Eli (2010)

Possible Hook-Up:  Mila Kunis

Do They Hook Up?   No, though she’s sent to Denzel for that express reason.   Instead Esquire’s 2012 Sexiest Woman Alive ends up joining him on a quest to protect the last copy of the Bible in the world.

denzel_kelly reilly

“The last time i was in a movie with a woman named Kelly we never got this close.”

Flight (2012)

Possible Hook-Ups: Kelly Reilly, Nadine Velazquez

Do They Hook Up?  Do they?  Not only does Denzel hook up with an extremely naked Nadine Velazquez, he does drugs with her too and pole-vaulting the color line, not once but twice, stirred up a “blacklash” like this one from Courtland Milloy in his Washington Post column,

As Denzel Washington puckered up to kiss Kelly Reilly, his redheaded co-star in the movie “Flight,” you half expect the camera to cut away. Surely, Washington doing “love scenes” with a white woman in a movie billed as an airplane thriller would be too much baggage for the movie to fly.

And as the camera zoomed in on those locked lips, that proved to be the case.

For his part, Washington has noted that Hollywood, historically, was reluctant to put interracial relationships on the big screen, that he has no problem with it but won’t do it just for the sake of getting a reaction out of viewers.

But he’s done it now.

“It took me by surprise,” Mildred Bailey, an information technology specialist for D.C. Superior Court, told me after the movie.

Toni Blocker, a retired visual information specialist with the D.C. government, was blunt about it. “The relationship was awkward and didn’t work for me,” she said.

(I happen to think Washington deliberately made the kissing scenes look awkward, like he was kissing a window pane, a signal to black women that his heart really wasn’t in it.)

I was expecting to see an airplane version of the 2010 movie “Unstoppable.”the 2010 movie in which Washington plays a railroad engineer who averts a disaster by stopping a runaway train.

What I saw instead was a tortured story about alcohol and drug abuse that was nearly ruined from the outset by gratuitous nudity and a ridiculously profane Washington, along with an unconvincing portrayal of his extramarital love life with a white woman.

I enjoy reading Milloy when he is writing compelling stories about non-political life in Washington D.C., but he’s no film critic.   It’s always a source of head-scratching curiosity how people can’t tell the difference between an actor and the part he’s playing.   Here is an example of an anti-Flight boycott on social media that never got off the ground.

The boycott of

The boycott of “Flight” never got off the ground, but it was still dumb.

The nudity in Flight is not “gratuitous.” It’s proper for a man whose life is quite literally in a nose dive.   Washington’s potty mouth is quite understandable, not ridiculous.   The sex and language in Flight are adult, but not excessive.   Perhaps Milloy is so accustomed to disposable junk  like Unstoppable (more like “Unwatchable” ) he’s forgotten what a “R” rated movie looks like.   Hint: bare breasts and bad words are often part of the proceedings.  Anybody jumping on Denzel for playing a unlikeable alcoholic liar is being ridiculous.   His job as an actor is to play the part to the best of his ability.   Is it Denzel’s fault he plays unlikable alcoholic liars so well?  He deserves a Best Actor nod for his performance in Flight and if he is, I’ll be pulling for him to add a third Oscar to his mantle.

Why should anybody freak if Denzil is onscreen with a White woman?   It’s not like he’s divorcing Pauletta, his wife of nearly 30 years.   She seems to understand when her man is hugging, kissing or boning another woman on-screen it’s only a movie and when the scene is over he comes home to her.

If Mrs. Washington doesn’t have a problem with her husband’s roles, you shouldn’t either.

There is an urban legend about the advice Washington supposedly gave to Will Smith for a scene in Six Degrees of Separation where Smith has to kiss another man.    Supposedly Washington advised Smith “don’t be kissing no man” because it would harm his film career.  Sure enough, when time came for the kiss, Smith told the director he wouldn’t do it and the camera shot from the back of the head only implies a same-sex smooch.

Nobody has ever confirmed Denzel actually told Will not to kiss a guy in a movie.  It’s one of those stories that sound plausible enough that they might be true.   Smith has shied away from interracial love scenes with the notable  exception of Eva Mendes, the go-to-girl for crossing color lines, in Hitch. Smith has since stated that he regretted not going through with it saying “It was very immature on my part.”

This story has been passed down and around as proof of Smith’s timidity and Washington’s “homophobia.”   However, speaking to USA Today, the former Fresh Prince said about his decision not to do the same-sex kiss, “I’ve seen the film.  It shows.  I’ve cheapened myself as an actor…I’ve spoken to Denzel Washington and he said if you’re going to take a role, do what the role calls for.”

That advice seems to be the very opposite of “don’t be kissing no man”   Kelly Lynch might argue Washington failed to take his own advice in Virtuosity  (but it is one of his absolute worst films, so maybe he should get a pass on that one).

The point is if the role calls for the character to be a drunk, a womanizer, a liar and yes, bed women outside of his race, then once the script has been read and the contracts signed and the camera starts rolling, the actor should play the role as convincingly and authentically as possible.

This is a skill Denzel  has mastered and at this point of his career, he’s earned the right to take any role he wants even if it doesn’t always present him in the most favorable light.   That’s all he owes the audience and that’s all he should give.

“I’m gonna set the plane down away from those angry fans.”

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