It was a night of surprises, as the AFI tribute to Denzel Washington started out with Beyoncé, who had not been announced, bounding out onto the stage — gasp — to present the night’s other prize, the Franklin J. Schaffner Award, to her video director Melina Matsoukas, who went on to direct Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and the upcoming movie “Queen & Slim,” collaborating with Lena Waithe. “Beyoncé taught me how to work, how to dream, and how to achieve,” she said. “And how to take control of your own narrative.”
Jennifer Hudson delivered a soaring rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come,” rousing the black-tie crowd to one of the night’s many standing ovations.
Kathleen Kennedy was revealed as the new chair of the AFI Board of Trustees, replacing Sir Howard Stringer after 19 years, who sent a farewell video. Robert A. Daly remains Chair of the AFI Board of Directors, a position he has held since 2009.
And during the expected programme, a list of top Hollywood stars mingled with Hollywood studio heads — among them Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Issa Rae, Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Mahershala Ali — and paid heartfelt tribute to an actor who inspired them all, who they consider the GOAT (“greatest of all time,” as award-presenter Spike Lee explained).
Michael B. Jordan said he wore Killmonger’s scars on his skin under a shirt during “Black Panther” because he heard that’s what Denzel Washington did while filming “Glory.” “We need superheroes like Denzel. You unite us. You inspire us.”
Issa Rae said of Washington: “He is the man. He is every man. He is that man.”
“I am here, we are all here, to kiss your black ass,” said Foster.
“Your influence and your reach transcends race without ever denying it,” said Ali. “We are here because we stand on the shoulders of a great. Thank you, Sir.”
Boseman thanked his benefactor for contributing tuition to nine Howard University students studying for the summer at Oxford, including him, “not only for the money but for everything he meant in my life,” he said. “He inspired others with the seed of hope, a bond of faith. There is no ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington. The whole cast stands on your shoulders.”
Washington’s Broadway and film “Fences” costar Viola Davis, along with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tiffany Haddish, Keegan Michael Key and Donald Glover, sent video tributes.
In a lengthy video interview and onstage, Washington thanked his parents for a solid upbringing in Mount Vernon, the Fordham teacher Robert Stone who typed out the two-page single-page recommendation letter that sustained him through the early years in theater and television, and “St. Elsewhere” producer Bruce Paltrow for letting him take time off to shoot three pivotal movies — “A Soldier’s Story,” “Cry Freedom,” and “Glory” — that set him on his path.
Washington coached in “Remember the Titans,” played Easy Rawlins in Carl Franklin’s film version of Walter Moseley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” killed Idris Elba in cold blood in “American Gangster,” and freaked out a bunch of gang members in a parking lot in the finale of Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” with his impromptu “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” speech. And he scared even more people with such action roles as “Deja Vu,” ‘”Safe House,” “Man on Fire,” “The Book of Eli,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “The Equalizer” movies.
He played jazz in Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” shot baskets in “He Got Game,” stood up to Jodie Foster in “Inside Man,” and sang the oratory of “Malcolm X,” channeling words that weren’t even on the page, said Lee. “D represents our black manhood. What you did in ‘Malcolm X’ has never been done before. It’s the greatest performance ever on celluloid.”
Washington thanked God and his “better half,” his wife of 40 years, concert pianist Pauletta, and urged her to stand for a bow. Then he played a video of his wife’s father exhorting people to “love one another.”
“What an opportunity we have,” he said, “to practice what he preached.”
The special will air on TNT on Thursday, June 20, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.