‘I’m in the right place.’ Denzel Washington wows at American Black Film Festival

About 30 minutes into the interview, Denzel Washington looked at moderator Chaz Ebert and flashed his patented, wide grin.

“This isn’t going how you thought it was gone go be huh?” the preeminent actor quipped, the crowd at the New World Center performance hall immediately erupting into thunderous laughter.

In a night filled with awkward exchanges, interesting insight and even a FaceTime call to Washington’s wife Pauletta, the Denzel Washington Retrospective somewhat uncomfortably punctuated what was an otherwise stellar American Black Film Festival. The event was a first in an annual series meant to honor Black contributors to the film yet the clunky questions of Ebert – the crowd even chanted “toss the script” at one point – put a dampen on what could’ve been a powerful discussion. Still, the crowd was engaged, holding onto every word as Washington commanded the crowd like preacher at the historic church, especially when he announced a bit of career news.

“The things that are going on professionally for me behind the camera are as important to me now as in front of the camera – I think there’s less and less time I’ll be spending in front of the camera,” Washington said, the crowd letting out a collective groan..

Saturday evening’s event was meant to discuss how Washington went from relative obscurity to, as the New York Times put it, “the greatest American actor of the 21st Century.” Such a title is not an overstatement: over a career that has spanned five decades, Washington has done about 65 films, generated more than $4 billion in box office sales as well as won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes.

As Ebert cycled through Washington’s career highlights, the revelations were rather astounding. He apparently only watches his movies once to “know what I’m talking about to the press” (“I’ve never been a big movie person,” Washington surprisingly said). He got into acting after a fellow camp counselor praised his performance for the children. And he actually had no desire to get into directing.

“My producer partner Todd Black talked me into it,” Washington said.

Shocked, Ebert got up from her seat and walked away from Washington before turning back towards him, and getting within inches of his face. It was a tactic, she claimed, to have picked up from her days as a trial attorney.

“You telling us you had no desire to be an actor, no desire to be a director?” Ebert said. “Is this all magic?”

After she returned to her seat, Washington paused for a second as if equally perplexed.

“This girl just squatted down right in my face?” Washington said.

Once again, the crowd erupted.

“I got a degree but I am from around the way,” he said, the audience’s laughter growing even louder.

That very statement is part of what has endeared Washington to audiences – especially Black ones – across his career. As Ebert mentioned, his roles have spanned the gamut of genres yet there’s a certain level of humility and dignity that he brings to each one. In a medium that has oft been used to reinforce certain stereotypes about the Black community, Washington stands as the antithesis to those dastardly intentions, refusing to sacrifice his humanity for a paycheck.

“Less is more,” Washington said when asked about how he excels in each role. “That’s the best piece of advice I got for you.”

An ardent support of ABFF, Washington first attended the festival in 1998. His presence corresponded with a ballooned attendance from roughly 90 in the previous year to 800, according to ABFF co-founder Jeff Friday.

“He’s the goat,” Friday previously told the Miami Herald. “He’s an icon. He’s one of the most successful actors of all time. And he’s a friend of the festival so we couldn’t think of any better person to kick off this series.”

Washington’s mere presence at the 28th annual ABFF more than two decades later encapsulated an important part of the festival’s ethos in that established stars should return to share their wisdom. Asked why he supported the festival and his answer was simple.

“American. Black,” Washington said, pointing the above screen that displayed the festival’s name as the crowd let out yet another triumphant applause. “That’s why. Cause I’m American and cause I’m black; I’m in the right place.”