His Christian name is only two syllables, with the stress (following the African-American pronunciation) on the second. Two syllables that are a byword for urbane cool. A mellifluous shibboleth – the quintessence of all that is decent and upstanding.
You see, I’ve grown up on Denzel’s films. From boyhood to manhood, from teenage recalcitrance to adult responsibility, he has accompanied me on my life’s journey like a Virgil to my wayfaring Dante. As father figure, older brother, man of probity and moral rectitude, Don Juan and all round Mister Nice Guy, he has been my consummate companion.
Many men of a certain age will have derived much of their moral compass from Denzel’s protagonists. Where Eddie Murphy garrulously played out our sexual fantasies, Denzel offered the righteous, dignified and principled heroic man we all yearn to be.
His acting prowess aside, how has Denzel consistently been such a massive box-office hit with both black and white audiences in a country as racially polarized as America? Well, to start with, he makes really good movies. Whether dramas or action thrillers, his films always say something enjoyable and important about the majesty and meaninglessness of the human condition, about societal wrongs or fraught human predicaments.
Moreover, as the archetypal strong, cerebral and articulate black man, utterly devoid of any Uncle Tom-foolery or ghetto thuggery, sartorial inelegance or nefarious racial clichés, Denzel appeals to the educated black American demographic, yet is also sufficiently unthreatening to be loved by liberal white America. In this, he transcends race and makes Americans of all backgrounds feel good about diversity and racial progress, even if the reality is often very different.
In an increasingly troubled, discombobulated world – one beset with internecine strife and religious and racial unrest – Denzel is thankfully the rock to which we can all cling, ‘the star to every wandering bark’ and the ontological anchorage amid the unfolding madness. A lone, reassuring voice of sanity in an otherwise insane universe, his presence as the noble Everyman on our cinema screens not only soothes our spirits, uplifting and empowering us, but makes us feel like everything’s gonna be alright. A world without Denzel is a world without hope and one I certainly wouldn’t like to envisage.
The Equalizer is released in cinemas nationwide on September 26
Lindsay Johns is a writer, broadcaster and currently a (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University