by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Few living actors have brought the level of storytelling to the screen that Denzel Washington has. It would be no exaggeration to state that his work will be discussed and lauded long after anyone reading this will be alive. Washington has told stories both in front of and behind the camera. His work is worthy of study for anyone wishing to impact large groups of viewers with their own narratives. Here are six story lessons we can take from the work of Denzel Washington.
1. Tell a simple story with complex characters
In Washington’s latest film, he embodies the role of Troy Maxson, a part made famous on the stage by another storytelling legend — James Earl Jones. Maxson is complex, nuanced, and full of contradictions, and we can’t take our eyes off him. The story of FENCES reminds us that good stories are not necessarily complex in plot or packed with fast-paced action. They are, however, without fail, about complex and interesting characters caught in the most impossible of conflicts.
2. Give your antagonist a strong moral argument
AMERICAN GANGSTER (1997)
We may not agree with gangster Frank Lucas’s methods, but we do gain some insight into his motivations when we see his backstory. The old saying states that ‘hurt people hurt people.’ There’s a scene in the film where Washington’s character is seen passing out toys and food to the poor during the holidays. This moment doesn’t serve as a suggestion for the audience to justify Lucas’s murdering ways as much as it provides a lens into the Robin Hood philosophy that Lucas believes himself to be operating within – a flawed but strong moral motivation and argument.
3. Strong protagonists aren’t perfect
MALCOM X (1992)
Praised as one of Washington’s most important roles and stories, the epic journey of the civil rights leader demonstrates a man who sometimes made poor choices, sometimes acted selflessly, and at times changed his mind. Protagonists must be capable of change. In order for them to accomplish this feat, they can’t be perfect. They shouldn’t even be perfect once they have experienced their arc, a flaw that many writers fail to recognize.
4. Protagonists should have a clear, simple, photographable external goal
INSIDE MAN (1996)
We learn much about the many layers that make Washington’s Det. Keith Frazier who he is. But nothing in the story is as compelling as the simple goal that he is tasked with in the story – capture a bank robber before he executes any of the hostages. Frazier’s goal is established early on. Every scene moves him closer or further from the mark. Most importantly, we can easily see when the goal is accomplished – or fails to be accomplished.
5. Irony is important
TRAINING DAY (2001)
The role of Det. Alonzo Harris brought Washington more acclaim and rewards than most in his career. While Washington’s performance was top notch, it was the ironic reveal that Harris was not who he appeared to be that made audience’s flock to investigate the deeper nuances of the character and thus the performance. Washington has always had a knack for choosing roles that allow him to display his gift for breathing life into characters that feel like real people, an essential element of storytelling. Training Day was one of the finest examples of this wisdom.
6. We react when hard stones crack
The single tear that rolled down the face of Washington’s character, Pvt. Trip, brought Academy voters to their collective knees. Seeing a man who had remained the rock of all those he came into contact with finally crack brought empathy from audiences far and wide. The risk of having a character with a hard exterior is that movie-goers may not like them. Washington has become a master of taking a character with a tough outer shell and forcing us to find a place in our hearts for him by the final frames of a film.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.