Denzel on the Guts, Pain, Tears of ‘Flight’

The Oscar winner says his new movie is a complex adventure. Plus: He recalls 20-year-old Malcolm X.

Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in Flight (Paramount Pictures)

Speaking of which, that’s exactly how long it’s been since Washington played perhaps his most iconic character to date, in the film Malcolm X. The 1992 Spike Lee joint was nominated for two Oscars the following year. Washington nabbed one for best actor, and Ruth E. Carter got the other for costume design. Lee and the film were snubbed, but the director has often said that Washington, who was up against other heavyweights like Clint Eastwood, Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Rea and eventual winner Al Pacino, was the one who was truly robbed.

“Wow, it’s been 20 years?” Washington said. “You know, I remember the first time landing in Africa was 1986, and I was doing a movie called Cry Freedom. And the first time landing in Egypt was on Malcolm X in ’91 or ’92. It was just a powerful feeling to be able to move around with the people, and I never felt threatened or anything like that. Wow, that was 20 years ago … I was 12 when I made that!”

Although Washington declined to comment on how he felt about the X snub (“That’s old news”), he had already won an Oscar for his supporting role in 1989’s Glory — the first time we saw that one tear fall. He wouldn’t win the big prize until 2002, for his rogue cop performance in Training Day, on the same memorable night that Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win best actress, and Sidney Poitier, the first brother to win best actor, was honored with a lifetime-achievement golden boy.

“I don’t get all caught up in that,” said Washington, who probably should have won for The Hurricane, a film that was released a year before Training Day (in which he played the titular boxer wrongly convicted of murder who fought to prove his innocence). “The awards are nice, but it’s about the work. It’s very rare — and I read a lot of scripts — but this one, I felt like I read it in 14 minutes because I was turning the pages so fast. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen. This was one of those scripts, I had to be a part of it. It was on the page — the guts, the pain, the tears.”

Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist in Los Angeles.