I came home on a Saturday night and turned on the TV. There he was: his strong jaw set, his dark eyes brooding. Oscar winner Denzel Washington, playing an alcohol-battling military man who has lost everything, and stands to lose more in his search for the truth in Courage Under Fire.
A powerful presence on the screen, Washington always commands respect and radiates integrity, whether playing the hero, the villain or a questionable character caught somewhere in between.
There is a certain authority in his voice, and a no-nonsense look in his eye that draws the audience in, so they are caught up in the onscreen struggle.
As such, he is in the highest echelon of movie stars, reportedly earning up to $US20 million per film.
He has been a favourite actor of mine for a long time, as much for some of his roles and the gravity of his performances as for his acting ability.
At high school, I had to do a book report on the biography of Rueben “Hurricane” Carter, a world-champion boxer falsely accused of murder. Washington played Carter in The Hurricane and the story was immediately brought to life for me.
Having followed his career with half an eye, always interested to see his newest film, I was recently surprised to discover Washington is a devoted Christian.
Late last year, he was named the second most powerful Christian in Hollywood, behind Mel Gibson, on the multi-faith website Beliefnet. He also headed the US Weekly list of Hollywood stars who regularly read the Bible. A 2006 Barna study found that Washington is better known and better loved than any living American religious figure.
“Spirituality is important in every aspect of my life,” says 52-year-old Washington. “That’s why I’m here.
That’s what I’ve been blessed to do.”
In an interview with Michael Kress, Washington said he reads the Bible daily, prays morning and night, and uses his films as a form of preaching.
“My work has been my ministry.
I asked my pastor years ago, ‘Do you think I should become a preacher?’ And he says, ‘Well, that’s what you’re already doing.’ I’ve always understood why I’ve been blessed to be put in this situation. And I’m more than happy to take advantage of it and preach, if you will, about what God has done in my life.”
Prayer is an extremely important part of Washington’s life, providing him with strength and guidance.
He has recently begun to try his hand at directing. “Every major decision I made, I made through prayer—about who I was picking to be in it, what I was trying to say, that the film was saying the right thing and that it would reach the right people. It’s every aspect of it. Every aspect. It’s how I start every day and it’s how I end every day.”
The son of a Pentecostal minister, he grew up in the church, although his faith was not always as important to him as it is now. After being forced to attend a constant barage of programs throughout his childhood and teenage years, Washington eventually stopped attending as a young adult. He tried other faiths and drifted for a while.
What brought him back? “God. I can’t say ‘this’ or a particular event. I just slowly worked my way back.” He has been attending the West Angeles Church of God in Christ since an actor/director friend of his, Robert Townsend, invited him along when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1979. Washington has reportedly donated $US2.5 million to the church. And it was his connections at the church that recently led him into a new project slightly different from his blockbuster movies— The Bible Experience.
the Bible experience
Inspired By … The Bible Experience is a dramatisation of the Bible. Awarded 2007 audio book of the year, the product’s website claims it is the most ambitious undertaking in recent recording history. With an original soundtrack and the voice talents of some of the world’s most recognisable African- American celebrities, it brings the Bible to life.
Washington joins 23 Grammy winners, eight Emmy winners, Golden Globe winners and two other Oscar winners, pastors and a whole host of other personalities in a recording that sees him narrate the Bible’s “Song of Songs,” alongside his wife, Pauletta.
He was one of the first people to come on board with the project, after being approached in the parking lot at church by fellow member Robi Reed, who was the casting director for The Bible Experience.
When she began describing the project to him, he immediately interrupted her to say, “I have to do it.”
Washington provides a refreshing change from the world of Hollywood celebrity bust-ups and breakdowns. Family is an important part of his life.
He has been married for 25 years and has four children. “Acting is just a way of making a living. The family is life,” he says. He now works for the sake of his family. And the striking leading man is getting lots of work.
He is often cast as the hero—the strong, investigative character, often a man in uniform or an inspirational true character, like Malcolm X, whom his son was named after, or his most recent role of Mel Tolson in The Great Debaters.
Tolson was a professor at a small African-American college in 1930s Texas, who coached the school’s debate team to national prominence while also working as a union organiser on the side—a story that deals with issues like racism and overcoming the odds.
This is Washington’s ministry and he is careful about the roles he chooses.
However, sometimes in movies like Training Day and American Gangster, he plays the villain. So how does he reconcile the swearing, drugs and violence with his faith?
“I think I’m going to instil [my faith] in everything I do,” says Washington.
“It’s who I am. It goes with me wherever I go. Understand that it’s something bigger than making a film, even American Gangster.
“When I met Frank Lucas [the film’s main character], he said, ‘Do this and win an Oscar.’ I’m like, ‘Frank, I’m not in it for that.’ I found it interesting that he paid for his crimes with jail time, and now he’s paying with his body, which has sort of betrayed him. It’s important for me to tell that part of the story. There are consequences.”
Washington tells a similar story of his role in Training Day. “The first thing I wrote on the script was, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ And it was important, actually, for me in making this film.
They wanted [my character] to live at the end. And I said no. I think the only way I could justify him living such an awful life or living in the worst way, was for him to die in the worst way.
I’m always looking for that—for some kind of message. And sometimes, I just choose not to do certain films.”
Washington has reached the pinnacle of stardom and achieved great heights, winning two Oscars, countless other awards and directing and starring in box-office smash hits such as Glory (1989), The Pelican Brief (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Remember the Titans (2000) and American Gangster (2007), to name a few.
Yet he manages to stay grounded in his faith and his family. He signs his autographs with “God bless”—and means it.
“You have to work at it,” he says. “I was just reading today: one day you’re going to have to walk with God when you can’t understand where He’s taking you. Your techniques, skill set and connections won’t get you through. So don’t try this on your own. He’s got you covered. My faith helps me understand that circumstances don’t dictate my happiness, my inner peace.”
Washington’s faith and his solid commitment to reading his Bible and praying every day keep him going.
Along with his family and his church, these things make him into the brilliant, acclaimed actor he is today, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground and keeping him out of the trouble other Hollywood actors suffer. He lives by a precept given to him by his mother: “Man gives the award. God gives the reward.”
“So I understand that what I’ve been blessed to do is a part of God’s plan,”
Washington reflects. “And as long as I please Him, then I’m pleased.”