The Denzel Washington Role That Made Him Fear For His Life

By TeeJay Small | Published

Denzel Washington has always been an industry leader in terms of choosing the greatest roles, making him one of the most revered thespians of our time. The Academy Award-winning actor has expressed, however, that one role made him genuinely fear for his life, as he and director Spike Lee were speaking truth to power in the face of significant political and racial danger.

Denzel Washington’s leading performance in the 1992 drama Malcolm X was so moving and powerful that he believed political interests behind the civil rights leader’s passing would come for him in the midst of filming.

Denzel Washington Became Malcolm X

Denzel Washington starred in the title role of Malcolm X as the revered civil rights activist who was shot and killed at the age of 39 after pivoting through several significant life changes. In the three decades since the film first premiered, Washington has spoken at length about the experience of starring in the film, researching the prolific American figure, and navigating the racial construction of Hollywood as a black actor.

The Film Spoke Truth To Power

During a 2018 discussion with Timeout, Denzel Washington specifically referenced Malcolm X as a film that caused him to fear for his life, stating, “Sh**, we were worrying about getting killed. You’re talking about politics, we were trying to stay alive… ‘Put it this way: we were stepping on some serious toes. And I’m not just talking about the studio.”

Relevant Then, Relevant Now

Denzel Washington specifically brought up Malcolm X because the interviewer had inquired about the actor’s well-known aversion to appearing in sequels. Until the 2018 film The Equalizer 2, Denzel had never appeared in a sequel, though the on-screen performer claims this is less of a personal rule and more of a product of circumstance. After all, he jested, there wouldn’t be much room to star in additional installments of films such as Malcolm X.

The interviewer continued to question if such a film could be made in today’s political environment, which has gotten increasingly polarized in the past decade or so. While Denzel Washington was quick to point out that Spike Lee has always leaned heavily into the political nature of the black American experience, Malcolm X was a special case, as the prominent activist had just been violently killed fewer than 30 years before production began.

Denzel Isn’t Afraid Of Politically Charged Films

Spike Lee has gone on to helm a number of politically charged movies despite or perhaps because of the modern landscape. These films include David Byrne’s American Utopia, BlacKkKlansman, and a 2017 made-for-TV film centered on Rodney King. Denzel Washington’s own son John actually starred in BlacKkKlansman over 25 years after production wrapped on Malcolm X.

Washington Would Work With Spike Lee Again And Again

As far as Denzel Washington is concerned, he wouldn’t think twice about taking on the role of Malcolm X today, so long as Spike Lee is involved. Still, the actor is grateful that he was able to star in the film and still walk away unscathed, as Malcolm X is such a polarizing figure in the world of politics and pop culture.

Viewers interested in catching Denzel Washington’s career-defining performance in Malcolm X can stream the classic film today on Amazon Prime Video. The film serves as a testament to how far black Americans have come since the early days of the civil rights movement, and a stark reminder of how much progress is still yet to be made.

Source: Timeout