Movies: Washington University

Oprah Winfrey has had her sights on Denzel Washington for a while, but then again, who hasn't? The difference is that Washington actually turned her down. Nearly 10 years ago, when Winfrey was producing her first feature film, "Beloved," she thought that Washington would be perfect as her mild-mannered love interest. (Again: who hasn't?) Besides, Washington had already won an Oscar for portraying a defiant slave in "Glory," so he could only get better in Toni Morrison's slavery-tinged best-selling novel. There was only one problem. Washington didn't want the part. Though he's hesitant to admit it, Washington's choices in characters have always leaned toward the noble, much as Sidney Poitier's did. Even when he's playing a coldblooded murderer or a ruthless drug king such as the one in "American Gangster," Washington still manages to add his own version of African-American pride. The male character in "Beloved'' was beaten down by the cold, cruel world. "It would have been nice to work with Oprah at that time, but I know when a role is right for me and that one wasn't," Washington says. "You get to a point where your instincts tell you right away what's right and what's not in this business, and you get to a point where you don't second-guess it." The part, at Washington's suggestion, went to Danny Glover. And the movie faded quickly.

But nobody resists Oprah for long. In 2004, she came back to him with the script of a movie called "The Great Debaters," and this time she hit him where he lived. "Debaters" is about the first debate team from a black college to compete—and win—at the national level. It's an uplifting movie about the power of education and family—Bill Cosby's mantra without the finger-pointing. Even better, Oprah wanted Washington to direct. It was perfect timing: he had become a bit jaded with acting, not that he'd put it that way exactly. "I've been doing this a long time, and anyone in any job gets that itch to try something different," he says. "I don't want to use the word 'bored,' but it's nice to be challenged." And distracted. At the same time that he was making "Debaters," Washington was running the marathon that became "American Gangster," a film that tested his patience, especially when Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington in his Oscar-winning turn in "Training Day," was fired along with several key actors. The film was shelved twice in three years—Washington actually got paid twice for the same movie, earning a tidy $40 million for his efforts. "Some projects have so much extra baggage that you just go do the job and look forward to a type of project where you can exercise your creative side,'' he says.

Of course, in Hollywood, nothing ever turns out as planned, even with Oprah aboard for the ride—and paying the bills. Turns out that you can raise a lot more money for your movie if Denzel Washington appears on screen instead of just behind it. "Acting and directing together the first time around was murder," he says of his first double duty, on "Antwone Fisher." "This time around I planned to sit back and watch the young people do their thing, but the budget the studio was offering without me in it convinced me otherwise." So with $25 million, Washington assembled a cast that included Forest Whitaker as the town's pastor and father of one of the debate-team stars, and himself as the debate coach. Washington did win one battle to stay in the background: his credits. "I was sick of seeing my name," he says. "So we put them at the end.''

At least that money, and carte blanche from Oprah, bought Washington artistic freedom. He felt strongly about making more than just a feel-good postcard from the 1930s. There's?one?scene in the?movie where the debate?team, whose success is seen primarily through the supportive eyes of the African-American community,?is traveling?on the back roads of?Texas to a meet. Late at night they?stumble onto a lynching—and reality sets in. To Washington, filming the scene was something of a metaphor for the state of current racial relations today: placid on the surface, boiling underneath. To tap into the essence of that scene, Washington drew from the death of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas, as well as Louisiana's Jena 6 case, in which six young African-Americans were jailed after a fight over white students' leaving nooses on their high-school campus. "That image of a noose is a conversation that still needs to be had," says Washington, who watched archival footage of lynchings and hangings to remind himself of the brutality. "I wanted to make sure to show the faces of the crowd that watched. I was so struck by how young some of the kids were and the smiles on their faces as they watched a man hung and burned alive."

That's not to say that "Debaters" is a downer—far from it. Washington, a father of four (he beams when he talks about his son the Morehouse graduate and his daughter the Ivy League sophomore) wanted to reinforce the message of education and family values. "It was an interesting time in African-American life," he says. "There were so many things working against blacks back then, but the home base was strong and made all the difference." He and Whitaker had long talks about the tone of the family scenes. "He didn't want his character to be too nice, because back in the day you loved your kids but you were tough on them, too," Washington says. "You loved them tough because you knew what they would face out there and they had to be ready."

Washington, 52, is having one of the best years of his career, even as he gets ready to make his 37th film: "The Taking of Pelham 123," costarring John Travolta. "Gangster" was his biggest box-office opening to date—so he seems he's worth $40 million after all. He'll likely get another Oscar nomination for it, too. Yet he says he's already gotten something almost as good. "People would come up to me months before the film's release and tell me how much they were looking forward to seeing it," he says. "I never had that with a film. Americans love gangsters, I guess," he says. And they're pretty fond of Mr. Washington, too.