Before the release of Malcolm X (1992), Denzel Washington was already a rising star and an Oscar winner. Under the direction of Spike Lee, he would receive widespread acclaim and yet another nomination for portraying the famed activist and minister. Yet the film marked the genesis of another, unexpected career. In one of the final scenes of the film, young Black students in a Harlem classroom come to their feet and declare with resolve and reflection, “I am Malcolm X!” Lee invited Denzel’s oldest son, John David, to play one of the kids, and his parents agreed. Lee saw it as an opportunity to enhance the young boy’s resume, but even he couldn’t have anticipated that John David Washington would be fated to have a career as great as the film he debuted in.
Washington is the son of not one but two famous parents; his mother Pauletta Pearson Washington is also an actress and Juliard-trained pianist that has worked on Broadway as well as in film. Acting appealed to Washington from a young age; he recalls being enchanted by his mother’s music and his father performing Shakespeare in the park . But he also wanted something for himself, far from the impressive shadows of his successful and talented parents. He found that independence in playing football. Washington soon established himself as a talented running back in high school, an All-American recruited by several FBS colleges. His choice to attend and play for Morehouse College was unexpected, but he held the record there for career rushing yards for seven years. Upon graduation, he suited up as an undrafted free agent for the St. Louis Rams, but never made it to the field. Instead, he spent some time playing in the United Football League and overseas. While training for an attempted return to the NFL, all his athletic efforts ended with a pop; he had torn his Achilles tendon, and with it went his football dreams.
Despite the inherent dejection, the injury gave him the push to pursue his acting ambitions. His mother took him to his very first audition, while he was still on heavy painkillers from surgery and in a boot . The get-up probably made an impression because after multiple, grueling auditions he landed the part in HBO’s Ballers (2015-2019) alongside Dwayne Johnson. Considering his background, playing the role of a controversial football star seemed tailor-made and Washington excelled. He continued his work in Indie films, starring in Love Beats Rhymes (2017), Monsters and Men (2018), and All Rise (2018). While filming The Old Man and the Gun (2018), he got a text from Spike Lee. The director invited him to read a book about the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who also managed to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan. When he finished the compelling narrative and came back to report, Spike said, “See you this summer” . Just like that, within 3 years of making a career change, Washington had the leading role in a historical drama that was nominated for Best Picture, for which his performance was universally praised.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, Washington’s next gig was the lead in a Christopher Nolan movie alongside Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branaugh. The mind-bending spy-thriller Tenet (2020) is now playing everywhere that theaters are open. It proves that Washington has what it takes to be an action star, as his athleticism enabled him to perform many of his own stunts. I think it’s also worth adding a seemingly small detail about his performance in a Hollywood where most movies steer away from actresses that are taller than their male costars. Debicki, who is 6’3” without heels, walks tall and brings her acting A-game while Washington holds his own with the confidence necessary to be her costar. That presence, along with his killer fight scenes, is going to make him an international household name.
He’s still young in the business, but Washington isn’t taking anything for granted. And now that he’s proven how well he stands on his own two feet, injuries and all, perhaps we can see a collaboration within the brilliant Washington family. It’s plain to see he inherited talent, but the success he can claim for himself. What we’ve seen suggests there’s much more ahead for the second-generation actor; will he claim an Oscar, suit up as a superhero, or portray a historical icon? Whatever the endeavor, John David Washington won’t be filling anyone’s shoes; he’ll be taking to red carpets in a pair all on his own.