Should he win, Washington would have more Oscars under his belt than any other African-American actor. He is already the most nominated, having landed his seventh nod this year for Fences, and is also the only African-American to win multiple acting Oscars.
But with Casey Affleck’s gut-wrenching turn in Manchester By the Sea wracking up best actor nominations and wins throughout awards season, this year’s Oscars will see Washington playing an unfamiliar role: the underdog.
He admitted as much after his surprise win at the SAG Awards, where Washington beat out Affleck for the lead actor prize. “I’m a God-fearing man, I’m supposed to have faith; but I didn’t have faith,” he said onstage. “I said, ‘Well, you know that young boy’s going to win, Denzel, you ain’t gonna win.’ So I didn’t even prepare.”
Despite Affleck’s otherwise dominating awards-season run, Washington’s SAG win could have a major impact on his Oscar chances. The last 12 actors to win SAG’s best actor award went on to win the Oscar, with the exception of Johnny Depp for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar that year for Mystic River).
Washington’s road to making Academy Awards history began nearly three decades ago, when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 1987’s Cry Freedom. He lost that year to Sean Connery in The Untouchables.
Three years later, he won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Pvt. Trip in Glory at the 1990 Oscars. That year he beat out Danny Aiello for Do the Right Thing, Dan Aykroyd for Driving Miss Daisy, Marlon Brando for A Dry White Season and Martin Landau for Crimes and Misdemeanors. He dedicated the award to the Civil War soldiers portrayed in the film, who he said “helped make this country free.”
He received his first Best Actor nod for Malcolm X in 1993, losing to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman — and was nominated for the same award again in 2000 for playing boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane.
Washington’s next Oscar win came in 2002 for his lead performance in Training Day. The evening was an especially important day in Academy history, as Halle Berry won the Best Actress award for Monster’s Ball, marking the first time two African-American actors had won in the same year.
The win also occurred the same night Sidney Poitier was awarded an honorary Oscar. Washington was just the second African-American actor to win best actor, after Poitier took home the award nearly 40 years earlier. In his acceptance speech, Washington acknowledged the context of his win.
“Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney [Poitier], they finally give it to me, what’d they do? They give it to him the same night,” Washington joked. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you.”
Before this year, his last nomination was for Best Actor in Flight, which he lost to Daniel Day-Lewis’ critically acclaimed portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
But if there was ever a time for Washington to make history with a third Oscar win, it would be this year for Fences. The passion project took decades to get to the screen, with its author, August Wilson, insisting it be directed by an African-American, and later, with Washington’s insistence that he play the role onstage before adapting it to film — which he did, with Viola Davis as his costar.
“We’re a tight band, we know the music,” Washington told The New York Times about himself and Davis, who is a favorite to win Best Supporting Actress for her turn. In a comment that easily could have been made about his own connection to the role, Washington said Davis’ performance has an air of destiny.
“This is where the actor meets the role,” he told the Times. “I hope she has other great roles. But this is the role.”