Richard Pryor had ruled the movies for years as a comedy star and standup comic guru, but Hollywood was hurting for the next Sidney Poitier. Could America even accept one? “I don’t think the country is ready for black leading men,” Eddie Murphy told TIME. “White guys won’t accept their ladies’ going nuts over a black actor.” He said this in 1984, when the great black hope for young dramatic actors was Howard E. Rollins, Jr., who had earned an Oscar nomination for Ragtime. Rollins was the star of this excellent racial murder mystery, based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer-winning A Soldier’s Play. But the real news, in retrospect, was the eye-catching performance by a young African American making his first bid for dramatic stardom in movies. Denzel Washington played a glowering G.I. in A Soldier’s Story, and he stole a little of the limelight from Rollins, who was saddled with the kind of lead — a quiet, noble lawyer who checks his rage at the door — that would automatically go to Poitier before him and Washington after.
There was cunning and pride in Washington’s work here, and subtlety too. His potential seemed unlimited for playing memorable heroes or villains, Othello or Iago. But he was too handsome, dammit, for Hollywood not to cast him as Mr. Righteous. That he did soon become something like the next Poitier was both a blessing and a pity. It meant he got plum roles: as Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom and as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, while denying him the character roles that are often showier and more fun. Stardom did suit Washington’s gifts: the surface aplomb that often masked sulfurous anger. A whisperer, not a shouter, Washington counted on his magnetic screen presence to show that he wouldn’t ingratiate himself to anyone, least of all the audience.
After five Oscar nominations (and one win as supporting actor in Glory), he cashed in with a rare meanie part, in Training Day, and become the first black star to win Best Actor. Last year, curiously, Washington was weaker as a Harlem drug king in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (his silky geniality deprived the role of magnificent maleficence) than he was under his own direction in The Great Debaters. As a demanding teacher at a Negro college in the 1930s, he managed a combustive blend of charm, threat and mystery — the factors that for two decades have sustained the black leading man Eddie Murphy thought America wouldn’t accept.
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