Denzel Washington received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Steve Biko in Cry Freedom.
Washington plays the murdered Biko who is killed relatively early on but before he is killed Washington is basically the lead in the film. Washington I will admit is not one of my favorite actors as he can act in a too self aware fashion in many of his performances, or fail to really make a characterization with conviction. His performance as Steve Biko though is one of his better performances because he avoids these problems.
He manages to play Steve Biko fairly simply but fairly effectively. He does not try to really make Biko a larger than life sort of figure, but rather just a man who wishes to find some justice in his country. Washington never overplays the role of Biko rather handles everything relatively quietly in his performance. From his speeches to the way he convinces Kline's character of his cause Washington just shows a nice dignity and passion in the part that is effective.
The part is not the greatest of challenges really though past showing the passion of Biko, but nonetheless it is a well handled performance. Biko though is not as well developed of a character as one might think though as he is murdered very early on, and he only occasionally is remembered past this point, and even when he is remembered it is not in any sort of different fashion than when we saw him alive earlier in the film.
What there is though Washington is as he should be in his performance. He realizes the exact Steve Biko the film wanted you to remember as a martyr for his cause throughout the rest of the film. I do wish that the film had maybe expanded even more on his character and given a bit less emphasis on Kline's characters escape, but still Washington's performance is a good one that avoids the problematic tendencies of his later work.