Denzel Washington Receives AFI Life Achievement Award At Emotional, Inspiring Tribute In Hollywood

Perhaps it is telling us something about the history of the film industry that Denzel Washington, last night’s highly deserving honoree for the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award is only the third African American to ever receive it, and before Morgan Freeman was honored in 2011, Sidney Poitier in 1992 was the only person of color on the AFI list. Of course careers like two- time Oscar winner Washington’s are increasingly rare, but as evidenced by tributes from the stage by the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Mahershala Ali, and Jamie Foxx there can be no question Washington won’t be the last African American so honored considering those his career has clearly inspired. It seemed entirely appropriate that Jennifer Hudson came out mid show to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and received a rousing standing ovation when it was over.

That kind of change was even evidenced at the table I was honored to be sitting at with Issa Rae who would be one of those tributing Washington, and particularly AFI Conservatory graduate Melina Matsoukas, an African American director who received the other big honor of the evening, the 29th Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal. She is a two time Grammy winner who has directed several music videos for Beyonce, Rhianna and more, episodes of Rae’s Insecure, Master of None, and her upcoming feature directorial debut with Queen & Slim which looked great during Universal’s CinemaCon presentation in April. The studio is giving the film a prime Thanksgiving release. A big surprise for her was the appearance of none other than Beyonce to present her award. Matsoukas was brought to tears by her presentation as Beyonce spoke. In a room lit up with a lot of star power she clearly wowed this crowd just by her presence. Matsoukas told me later she was truly shocked. “AFI gave me three extra seats so I called Beyonce to invite her to sit with me but she never returned the call which is unusual, so I figured she was just too busy. Now I know why,” she laughed.

In her touching acceptance speech Matsoukas, who was AFI class of 2005 graduating in Cinematography, explained she had made an initial splash with an MTV video and thought she was off to a great start, but her mother set her straight and pushed her instead to get her master’s degree instead of leaving school behind. “I thought I was ready to take on the world, but as black mothers are conditioned to know in this world, their daughters always have to be better, they have to know better. And so she won that fight as she always does and the next fall I was getting my ass kicked at AFI. I was the only black woman in my program, though at that point I was the only black woman in most cases. It was an incredible learning experience…in an industry where people like me are so often the only one, where we have to fight daily to have a voice, the only other ones are the people I owe my career to. They taught me how to stop fighting to get into spaces, but rather how to create your own space, how to lead and how the culture will support you and they will recognize and honor black families because their lives depend on it,” she said. And this was just the inspiring beginning of an unforgettable AFI night.

I was at the AFI Tribute for both Poitier and Freeman and they were memorable, but I have to say there was an air in the Dolby Theatre last night that made this one especially moving. I have been to so many of these AFI evenings over the years from Frank Capra to Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney last year and on and on, and each has its own style befitting the different honorees. Washington told me he had never been to an AFI tribute before and when I mentioned that his entrance into this room, as he weaved his way through a lot of equally famous stars and studio chiefs on his way to the head table, must have been daunting. He said absolutely not because there were so many friends there. “To me this is just like a party, a very big party,” he laughed. Spike Lee, sitting right next to him agreed this was a very big deal. He hadn’t been to an AFI dinner before either. Flanking Denzel and his wife Pauletta were Julia Roberts, Cicely Tyson, his Glory director Ed Zwick and more. It looked like Washington was having a great time, surprised at every moment. His longtime publicist Alan Nierob told me everything was kept secret from him so he knew nothing beforehand.

AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale began the evening with his usual grace, and introduced via tape from London outgoing AFI Board of Trustees Chair Sir Howard Stringer who served 19 years and started off by saying “I am sorry not to be with you tonight but the new immigration laws in your country are rather stringent”, to which he got a big and knowing laugh. However he made real news in announcing that Kathleen Kennedy has been named to succeed him in the post. She told me she was very excited to take it on when I went over to congratulate her during the dinner break.

Foxx kicked the Washington tribute off with some very funny comedy bits, but got serious when he spoke about being invited to Denzel’s house with a number of other colleagues. “He sat at the table and he talked to all of us one night, all of the young actors that were coming up, and the actresses, and you watched him now sort of evolve into something different, where he’s more vocal. He tells you how to hold on to what is artistic, to not forget that we are here for a different purpose. And that night he talked to all of us and made us feel like we could do it,” he said of the influence Washington has had.

Roberts, his Pelican Brief co-star, came on to share a letter of recommendation written for young Denzel when he was graduating from Fordham University and needed somebody to vouch for his talents. “They are words so encouraging, so inspiring that Denzel folded it up and put it in his wallet and carries the original with him to this day,” she said before sharing some of what was written by Robert Stone, his teacher. She highlighted a few lines, notably: “I say without hesitation that Mr. Washington is the finest young actor I have ever known. At age 22 he has the potential for being one of the outstanding actors of the latter part of the 20th century.” Prophetic words indeed.

Ali talked about growing up in Oakland, coming of age, and seeing Washington in a string of roles including A Soldier’s Story, Glory, Mo Better Blues, Malcolm X. “Yes there were groundbreakers before – Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier – but Mr. Washington’s arrival was a seismic moment for my generation. It’s hard to articulate the pride we all felt in seeing one of us as a leading man, working at the highest level. He paved the way, he showed us the path but what is truly monumental is your reach transcends race without ever denying it… This evening we are here because we stand on the shoulders of a giant,” he said.

Jordan talked of Washington as a superhero whose movies hurt viscerally but always hit the mark. Boseman thanked him for being his benefactor in providing the tuition so he could study one summer at Oxford, and not just him but eight other Howard University students. “He inspired others with the seed of hope and a bond of faith. There is no ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington. The whole cast stands on your shoulders,” he said echoing the phrase used by Ali earlier.

Jodie Foster saying forthrightly “we are all here to kiss your black ass” , a charming  Tyson,  Antoine Fuqua who directed him to an Oscar in Training Day among other movies , and Morgan Freeman were also delivering plaudits in person, with others like Viola Davis paying tribute on tape at various points in the show which will be broadcast on TNT June 20, and in September on TCM. I wouldn’t want to be the one editing it, because every speech was great.

Finally it was up to Lee, a frequent collaborator, to present the award to Washington. “We are all here because we love Denzel. There have been several references tonight to ‘dope’, that means the greats of all time. We’re talking about ‘the dope,’ we’re talking about Michael Jordan, we’re talking about Frank Sinatra, we’re talking Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Miles Davis. That’s the rarefied air for Denzel Washington,” he said before praising his performance in Malcolm X as the greatest ever on celluloid, saying the actor prepared for the role for a year.

Washington thanked a long list of the people who got him to this point including his late father, his 95 year old mother, God, and his wife of 40 years Pauletta for whom he asked the audience to stand up (and they did!). He closed his speech in an unusual way in honoring his late father-in-law who taught him to make a house a home. He showed a one minute and thirty second video of his father-in-law, put together by Denzel’s son Malcolm (an AFI graduate he noted) as he offers some sound advice on the things in life that matter most and what our true purpose is. At its conclusion Washington had one last thing to offer in answer to his father-in-law’s words that loving each other should be paramount.

“In this Twitter-tweet-meme world that we’ve created for our children the least that we could do is consider what we’ve done and think about the young people, the future, and individually collectively do the best we can to try to turn this thing around. I blame no one. I look in the mirror. On the other side of it, what an opportunity we have because tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives. What an opportunity we have to practice what he preached”.

And as he said in one of the pre-taped interview segments shown throughout the evening, “A quote I use all the time is you’ll never see a U Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. So the question isn’t what you have or how much you have, the question is what do you do with what you have.” The answer in Denzel Washington’s case was clearly evident last night in Hollywood.

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