By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 07, 2019 at 09:03 AM EDT
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From his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day to his acclaimed work behind the camera to his many, many beloved roles in films ranging from Glory to Remember the Titans to The Equalizer, Denzel Washington has left an indelible mark on Hollywood.

The celebrated actor was honored on Thursday night at the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award presented by Audi. Washington was joined by some of his most illustrious co-stars, including Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, and Cicely Tyson, to pay tribute to his body of work. The night was bursting with highlights from Mahershala Ali singing Washington’s praises as inspiration to a generation of black actors to Michael B. Jordan taking that a step further and pointing to Washington’s acting choices in Glory as inspiration for his role in Black Panther. 

The AFI Life Achievement gala is always a star-studded evening, full of standout moments. But Thursday night was all about enshrining Washington as one of the “greatest of all time,” as labeled by stars like Julia Roberts and Chadwick Boseman. Washington himself chose to focus on the two things that matter most to him — God and his family — honoring them both extensively in his acceptance speech.

Here are the best moments from the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award Gala.

Julia Roberts reads a letter of recommendation

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Roberts and Washington have a long-time friendship, dating back to their co-starring in 1993’s The Pelican Brief. She even presented Washington’s category at the Oscars in 2002 when he won Best Actor for Training Day. Thursday night gave America’s sweetheart the chance to honor her friend in a new way — by reading from a remarkable letter of recommendation Washington was given by his university acting teacher Robert Stone.

“They are words so encouraging, so inspiring that Denzel folded it up and put it in his wallet and carries the original with him to this day. He’s probably sitting on it,” Roberts mused. “Here are just a few lines: ‘I say without hesitation that Mr. Washington is the finest young actor I have ever known. At age 22, he has the potential for being one of the outstanding actors of the latter part of the twentieth century. If there is such a thing as genius, than I assure you Mr. Washington is one. I honestly believe that even now he is the best actor I have ever known or seen and God only knows where this can take him.'”

Roberts went on to liken her time working with Washington on The Pelican Brief to working with The Beatles. She hit on one of the enduring themes of the evening, pointing to how impressed she was by Washington’s dedication to his wife Pauletta, and their four children. A dedication that she has taken up in her own life with her husband and children.

She closed by echoing Robert Stone’s words, and setting up one of the refrains of the ceremony, saying, “Mr. Stone certainly is right on when he said you are, and I quote, ‘a talent to rank among the greatest of our time.’ I would only add perhaps the greatest of any time.”

Jennifer Hudson brings down the house

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It probably goes without saying that if you need to infuse the evening with an extra literal note of greatness, just bring out Jennifer Hudson (she certainly demonstrated this truth performing ‘Movin’ On Up’ a few weeks prior on Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons).

Hudson once again offered up one of the evening’s high notes, taking to the stage of the Dolby Theatre for a soulful performance of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The musical interlude came on the heels of a package dedicated to Washington’s more explicitly political roles, most especially his Oscar-nominated portrayal of civil rights activist Malcolm X.

The song was featured prominently in the 1992 film Malcolm X, but persistent legal issues surrounding its licensing rights prevented it from being included on the soundtrack at the time. But Hudson rectified that unfortunate legal snafu on Thursday night with a soul-shattering performance of the classic that brought the entire audience, including Washington himself, to their feet.

Chadwick Boseman calls Denzel the G.O.A.T.

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“There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington,” declared Chadwick Boseman, while honoring Washington’s contributions to his profession and the actors who came up behind him. “Not just because of me, but my whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders.”

The Marvel star recounted a story of how as an undergraduate at Howard University, Washington and Phylicia Rashad provided funding for him and a group of other students to do a summer acting program at the British American Drama Academy at Oxford University (This Is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson was also among this group). He used this tale of generosity as just one example for how Washington has inspired and raised up all who have come after him — making him perhaps the G.O.A.T. or “greatest of all time.”

“You built a body of work, characters, movies, moments that defied the limitations of story and success that has historically been available to the black actor,” said Boseman. “And amongst all the great male leads of Hollywood history, you measure up as great, if not greater, if not the G.O.A.T. And that would be enough to give, but I know personally that your generosity extends past what you have given.”

Boseman also spoke for the crowd, describing Washington’s movies as an “event” that demand theatrical attendance. “I’m not quite sure when I decided to follow you. It has somehow become a foregone conclusion and understood that when you have a new movie out, that I will get in line at the theater, buy a ticket, buy popcorn, yes, even today, when I could as an Academy member, [see it] for free. Even in this day and age when I could stream it later at home, and even with the complications of dealing with my own fans, when a Denzel Washington movie comes out, that is an event,” he declared. “I know I’m not the only person here who feels this way. We have, for as long as we can remember, bought our tickets with anticipation of the next. Because with each undertaking you have assured us that, regardless of the character’s disposition, there will be quality, there will be dignity, there will be strength. From Bleek Gilliam to Alonzo Harris, there will be authenticity, there will be humanity, so we show.”

Antoine Fuqua talks Washington’s one-take abilities

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Washington was honored by co-star and directors alike, including Antoine Fuqua, who directed him to his Best Actor Oscar in 2002’s Training Day. “That performance is more than just Oscar-worthy, it’s legendary,” proclaimed Fuqua, before relaying a story about filming one of the movie’s most famous scenes.

Fuqua painted an intense picture before arriving at a conclusion only Washington could render. “I remember filming the scene that’s now become called the ‘King Kong scene.’ It was late and we were filming in a place called the Jungle,” he recalled. “We were surrounded by gang members with names like Bone, Killer, No Go, Hitman, and they were real. Denzel goes into the scene and goes off. When he finished I wasn’t sure what was going to happen…There was a moment of silence and then the gang members went crazy and started clapping. And some came up to me and said ‘Yo homie, this movie’s a hit.’ Needless to say there was no take two.”

Spike Lee presents the award

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Spike Lee is one of Washington’s most frequent and enduring collaborators, having directed the actor in Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man. So, naturally, it was Lee, taking to the same stage where only a few months ago he finally won his first Oscar, who was tapped to present Washington with the AFI Life Achievement Award.

Lee began by reiterating Washington’s status as one of the greatest ever. “We’re all here because we love Denzel. There’s been several references tonight to the G.O.A.T. — when we’re talking about the G.O.A.T., we’re talking about Michael Jordan, we’re talking about Frank Sinatra, we’re talking about Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Miles Davis. That’s the rarefied air that Denzel Washington lives and breathes in. Denzel, to me, represents our black manhood. What you did in Malcolm X, that’s never been done before,” Lee declared. “I may be biased, but that is the greatest performance ever on celluloid.”

He went on to praise Washington’s dedication, pointing to the actor’s year’s worth of preparation for Malcolm X. “Denzel knew if he did his work the spirit of Malcolm could come in his vessel,” Lee explained.

He also delighted in what he called “the Washington-Lee love,” pointing to the wider-reaching bond with Washington’s entire family, casting everyone from his wife, Pauletta, to his children Olivia and John David Washington in his films (including John David’s starring role in last year’s BlacKkKlansman).

Denzel Washington accepts the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award

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At the end of every AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony, the honoree takes to the stage to close out the evening with some of their own remarks. Washington was no exception, and he chose to dedicate his time to honoring many of his collaborators, from agents to publicists to directors and teachers. But most particularly, he chose to pay tribute to God and his wife, Pauletta.

“If nothing else, I’m living proof of the power of God. Anything you think you see, anything you think I’ve done, understand where it comes from,” Washington began. “I’m up here to say thank you to God for giving me this ability, for blessing me, for shaping me, for chastising me, for teaching me, for punishing me, for allowing me to be a vessel and touch people around the world.”

He then went on to praise his wife and her support and talents as a classically trained pianist. “The most important person in my life, [for] 40 years,” he said. “Forty years of sacrifice, 40 years of forgiveness, of talking about faith, spirituality, love, real love, unwavering love in spite of myself. I would not be alive without Pauletta Washington.”

As part of his tribute to his wife, Washington also praised her father, the man he says taught him the difference between a “house and a home.” He shared a 30-year-old video of his father-in-law talking to the camera and preaching a message of love. “God intends for us to love all mankind and by being in a loving mood, caring for one another, that’s our purpose for life,” his father-in-law said in the clip. “We should care for one another and we should help one another.”

Washington closed by reflecting on and reinforcing this message, saying, “In this Twitter, tweet, mean, mean world that we’ve created for our children, the least we can do is consider what we’ve done and think about the young people, the future, and individually, collectively, we can try and do the best we can. I blame no one; I look in the mirror. On the other side of it, what an opportunity we have because tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of our lives, so what an opportunity we have to practice what he preached.”

The 47th AFI Life Achievement Award airs June 20 on TNT and will encore on TCM in September.

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