Racial discrimination was always part of American Cinema right from the early silent film days. In the early movies like the movie maestro D. W. Griffith’s masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1914) the roles of African-Americans,(they were then called ‘Negroes’ and later blacks) were all done by white actors in' blackface’ using the paste of burnt cork.
Segregation of African-Americans was carried to the extreme for the premiere of the immortal movie classic of 1939, Gone With The Wind in Atlanta City. The colored maid of Scarlett O’Hara was brilliantly played by the African American actress Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) who created history by winning an Oscar for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ She was the first of her race to win such high-plus recognition.
However the unkind cut of them all was that in the glossy glitzy printed invitation for the premier Hattie‘s name was deliberately omitted and she was not even invited for the pomp and circumstance ho-ho-hoopla show.
However over long period things began to change. African American actors and actresses, and singers like 'Bojangles’ Robinson, Lena Horne (she called herself ‘the sepia Hedy Lamarr!'), Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole and others made their presence felt in Hollywood.
The first major acceptance of an African American actor really happened when the brilliant actor, Sidney Poitier created history winning awards and adulation. However he was never accepted as a male sex symbol!
A different kind of history in Hollywood is being created recently by the stirring and stunning screen presence of African American actor Denzel Washington. Somewhat surprisingly even conservative white American women have begun to hail him as a macho male sex symbol of American Cinema!
Denzel of course is not merely a hulk of a male, but also a brilliant actor, and charismatic person. He is cool and collected and highly dignified, exuding supreme confidence and strength of character.
The journey was long, arduous and tough but by sheer talent and with tears and sweat and hard work he has scratched his way up the rock to the top. He began at the bottom, a good place to start, and scaled to become a multi-million dollar priced artist today. A significant achievement indeed for an African American actor....
As a struggling actor in New York and Hollywood especially with the wrong color of the skin he has known hunger and suffering. He has worked as garbage man, night clerk, and such occupations mainly to survive while he looked around for opportunities to make his dreams come true.
Not many are aware that Denzel played a minor supporting role in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala in which he was the colored lover of a young Indian woman.
Denzel has been nominated for the Oscar quite a few times for his brilliant performances in movies. And he won the Oscar for `Best Supporting Actor` for Glory (1989) and won the Oscar for `Best Actor` for his brilliant role in `Training Day` (2001). This was historic year when two African American performers, male and female won the Oscars for `Best Actor`, and `Best Actress`. Denzel was the actor while Halle Berry was the actress. A Golden Year in the history of African American artistes of Hollywood.
Denzel Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York on December 28, 1954. His father was a Pentecostal preacher while his mother was a hairdresser. His father was popular for his sermons, which he delivered in style and expressive body language, which young Denzel had watched with fascination and picked up.
This exposure helped him in great measure later when he played the role of an angel come down to earth in the fantasy comedy The Preacher's Wife (1996, this movie which had an almost all -African American cast was the re-hash of the 1946 box-office hit The Bishop's Wife, starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. Denzel played Grant’s role).
When Denzel was just 14 his parents’ marriage began to turn sour and rancid, and he and an elder sister were sent away to a private boarding school to avoid the kids being exposed to the parental quarrels and bickering which soon ended in divorce.
After school, Denzel attended Fordham University, New York where he studied journalism. He also acted in plays at school and after taking his B. A, Degree in 1977 he studied theater in San Francisco. Here he won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater, which helped him to hone his acting talents and skills.
After doing minor roles in forgotten films he got his major break in television in a medical drama series St. Elsewhere(1982). The hit series brought him the much deserved recognition and earned him pats and praise both from critics and viewers across the nation. Soon Hollywood beckoned him and he appeared in a number of movies and attracted attention in Cry Freedom (1987, directed by Richard Attenborough).
It was a sociological thriller located in South Africa and dealt with racism. Denzel played the social activist who was murdered. For his excellent performance he received an Oscar nomination.
Many felt that he deserved the Oscar for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ and his ambition and desire were fulfilled two years later when he won the Oscar for ‘ Best Supporting Actor’ for Glory (1989), an American Civil War drama of a young and inexperienced Union official given the command of the first black regiment to fight in the War. In this movie he brought all his talents to the fore and deservedly won the Oscar. Denzel was well on his way to heights of fame and name and also fortune.
Denzel’s other memorable movies include Mississippi Masala (1991), Malcolm X (1992), a biographical movie of the turbulent life and times and violent end of the African American revolutionary leader, a role brilliantly played by Denzel. Directed by in the noted African American filmmaker Spike Lee, Denzel performance was powerfully impressive and brought to life the revolutionary leader in a realistic manner.
Denzel received again an Oscar nomination for `Best Supporting Actor` for Much Ado About Nothing (1993, a take-off from Shakespearean drama).
His next film which created history was Philadelphia (1993), a gay lawyer who suffers from AIDS is consequently dismissed from his legal firm but he fights back not only the firm but society itself about its attitude. One of the earliest films which dealt openly and bravely about AIDS, somewhat unusual for Hollywood to attempt. Tom Hanks played the lead while Denzel played an injury-claims lawyer.
Many considered this picture as an excellent meaningful docu-drama on AIDS. Some called it a `Medicare movie` and Tom Hanks received an Oscar for `Best Actor` and many thought that Denzel’s performance was equally powerful and sympathetic but he did not get even a nomination.)
The glorious golden hour came when he won the Oscar for ‘Best Actor’ for Training Day (2001). This was a Los Angeles cop movie, in which a tired cop gets assigned to work in the narcotics division under an African American veteran trainer-Denzel Washington. The trainer’s ideas of wrong and right, illegal and legal have blurred long ago for a variety of reasons and under his training the white and the African American take risks in discharging their duties not always according to the book.
This difficult role splendidly etched by Denzel won him the Oscar. The fellow African American, Halle Berry also won the Oscar for ‘Best Actress’ in Monster’s Ball and the two performers wrote a new page in movie history.
His latest release Man On Fire (2004) is also a big hit and successful both critically and box-office wise with earnings of $54 million till now. And still earning!
Denzel Washington is happily married to Pauletta, an actress and is the father of five children. He spends lot of his time with his kids, planning their education and future. He lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills, a far cry from the crowded apartments of New York City.
Outspoken and yet friendly he has emerged as spokesman for the African American community of actors. He says he is proud to be an African-American and loves to play roles exploring the relations between the two races.