Forty years ago, Denzel Washington was struggling to find his path. With a 1.7 GPA, the then-20-something was almost flunking out of Fordham University. He hopped between coursework in the sciences, law and journalism.
Then he met a woman who claimed to have prophetic powers.
“One day, you will preach to millions,” she told him.
When Washington recalled that story Thursday before receiving the American Film Institute’s 47th Life Achievement Award, it was clear that woman was on to something.
Two Oscars and four decades of cinematic achievement later, the celebrated actor found the platform from which to preach, and a new generation has been listening.
“There is no ‘Black Panther’ without Denzel Washington,” Chadwick Boseman said on stage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
The T’Challa actor continued, addressing Washington directly, “And not just because of me, but my whole cast. That generation stands on your shoulders. … The things you refused to compromise along the way laid the blueprints for us to follow.”
Washington is one of three black actors to receive AFI’s prestigious award since its incarnation in 1973, joining Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman. Of the 47 honorees, nine have been women.
In the late 1990s, Washington paid the tuition for Howard University students to attend a summer acting program in Oxford, England. Boseman was one of the lucky few, along with Susan Kelechi Watson of “This Is Us.”
“Imagine receiving the letter … that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet,” Boseman said, beaming. “It began in me a spark, a tiny belief. A bud of faith.”
Michael B. Jordan, Boseman’s rival in the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, echoed his costar’s sentiments.
“In the mind-numbing, weary world that we all live in, we need heroes,” Jordan said. “We need superheroes like Denzel to remind us that the world — that we’re all one people. That’s your gift, sir. You unite us. You inspire us. And I want to thank you for leading the way.”
Jordan also revealed that the scars of his “Black Panther” character were a nod to those Washington bore in 1989’s “Glory.”
Fellow two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali also applauded the AFI honoree.
“Mr. Washington’s arrival was a seismic moment for our generation. We are here because we stand on the shoulders of a giant,” he said on stage as Hollywood stars and insiders munched on a three-course meal that included flatiron steak and chocolate mousse.
Washington sat at an elevated table with presenters Spike Lee, Julia Roberts, Antoine Fuqua, Cicely Tyson; filmmakers Carl Franklin and Edward Zwick; along with Washington’s wife, Pauletta, son Malcom and daughter Katia.
Guests were graced with a surprise appearance by another icon. Beyoncé stepped out to present the AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal to Melina Matsoukas, who directed the Grammy-winning artist’s “Formation” video, the “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None” (featuring Lena Waithe) and several episodes of Issa Rae’s “Insecure.”
Beyoncé said she and Matsoukas first collaborated more than a decade ago and have since become family.
“In 2005, she managed to shoot five videos with me in three days, creating beautiful imagery with little to no budget. We’ve come a long ways since those days,” Beyoncé added.
Even the honoree had a hard time processing the surprise. Matsoukas wiped away tears and said with a laugh: “I texted her days ago, and she didn’t get back to me.”
She continued, “[Beyoncé] truly inspires me. She taught me how to work, how to dream, how to achieve. And most importantly as an artist, how to take control of your own narrative. Without her, I’m not the same voice and I’m not the same creator.”
When Washington finally took the stage, he preached a message of love.
First he gave some love to his wife of 40 years, whom he met on the set of 1977’s “Wilma.” He asked Pauletta to stand, which led to wild applause and a standing ovation.
Washington encouraged the audience to love their neighbors and played a video, projected above the podium, in which Pauletta’s father hit the message home.
“God intends for us to love all humankind. We should care for one another. We should love one another,” he said in the recording.
Washington closed with careful words: “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives. What an opportunity we have to practice what he preached.”
“AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Denzel Washington” will air on TNT on June 20 at 10 p.m., with an encore showing at 11:30 p.m.
Turner Classic Movies will also air the special in September.