Denzel Washington Graduation Speech, May 2011
Thank you. Thank you very much. I am obviously the most unorganized. Everyone else has nice boxes to bring their script up in; I just like kind of got it all messed up here put inside of a magazine so, in fact, I don’t even have it in the right order, let me get it in the right order here. So if it starts like flying around the stage just, you know, run around and grab it for me and bring it back up here for me. I’ll keep going as I can.
President Gutmann, Provost Price, Board Chair Cohen, fellow honorees beautiful, and today’s graduates, I’m honored and grateful for the invitation today. It’s always been great to be on the Penn campus. I’ve been to a lot of basketball games at the Palestra because my son played on the basketball team. Yeah that’s right; he played on the basketball team. Coach didn’t give him enough playing time but we’ll talk about that later. No, I’m really pleased with the progress Coach Allen has made and I wish them success in the future. I’d always get a warm welcome when I come to Pennsylvania, when I come to Philadelphia, except on the few occasions when I’d wear my Yankee cap. What’s wrong with that? I can’t just suddenly switch up and wear a Philly hat. It’s like taking your life in your hands. People would say, “We love you Denzel. But you walking around with that hat on, we don’t care who you are.” So you’ll be happy to see that I’m not wearing my Yankee cap today but I am wearing my Yankee socks, my Yankee t-shirt, my Yankee jock, my Yankee underwear, my Yankee toe warmers but not my Yankee cap.
Still, I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little nervous. I’m not used to speaking at a graduation of this magnitude it is a little overwhelming. It’s out of my comfort zone. Dress me up in army fatigues, throw me on top of a moving train, someone said Unstoppable, ask me to play Malcolm X, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Alonzo from Training Day, I can do all that but a commencement speech? It’s a very serious affair, different ballgame. There’s literally thousands and thousands of people here. And for those who say, “You’re a movie star; millions of people watch you speak all the time.” Yes, that’s technically true but I’m not actually there in the theater, watching them watching me. I’m not there when they cough or fidget around or pull out their iPhone and text their boyfriend or scratch their behinds or whatever it is they’re doing in the movie theater. But from up here, I can see every single one of you. And that makes me uncomfortable.
So please, don’t pull out your iPhones and text your boyfriend until after I’m done, please.
But if you need to scratch your behind, I understand, go ahead. Thinking about the speech, I figured the best way to keep your attention would be to talk about something really, like, juicy Hollywood stuff.
I thought I could start with me and Russell Crowe getting into some arguments on the set of American Gangster, but no. You’re a group of high-minded intellectuals, you’re not interested in that or maybe not. I thought about a private moment I had backstage with Angelina Jolie half naked in her dressing room after the Oscars but I said, “No I don’t think so this is an Ivy League school. Angelina Jolie half naked in her dressing room, who wants to hear about that? No one, no one, no one, this is Penn. That stuff would never go over well here. Maybe at Drexel, but not here. I’m in trouble now.
I was back to square one and feeling the pressure. So now you’re probably thinking if it was going be this difficult, why’d I even accept today’s invitation in the first place? Well, you know my son goes here. That’s a good reason and I always like to check to see how my money’s being spent. And I’m sure there’s some parents out there who can relate to what I’m talking about! Yeah, everybody upstairs. And there were other good reasons for me to show up. Sure, I got an Academy Award but I never had something called a “Magic Meatball” after waiting in line for half an hour at a food truck. Yes, I’ve talked face-to-face with President Obama but I never met a guy named “Kweeder” who sings bad songs over at Smokes on a Tuesday night. I’ve never been to Breeze. I’ve never been to Emos. Yes, I’ve played a detective battling demons but I’ve never been to a school in my life where the squirrel population has gone bananas. I mean they’re breaking into the dorm rooms and taking over campus. I think I’ve even seen some carrying books on the way to class.
So I had to be here. I had to come, even though I was afraid I might make a fool of myself.
In fact if you really want to know the truth I had to come exactly because I might make a fool of myself.
What am I talking about? Well, here it is, I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks, nothing.
Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.” I’m sure in your experiences in school, in applying to college, in picking your major, in deciding what you want to do with life, people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.” But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward.
At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit.
Fall forward. This is what I mean; Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?
I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks and I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before but I want to talk about why it’s so important.
I’ve got three reasons—and then you can pick up your iPhones.
First, you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony but hey, I’m telling you, embrace it because it’s inevitable. And I should know, in the acting business, you fail all the time.
Early on in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought, except for the fact that I can’t sing. So I’m in the wings; I’m about to go on stage but the guy in front of me is singing like Pavarotti and I am just shrinking getting smaller and smaller. So they say, “Thank you very much, thank you very much; you’ll be hearing from us.” So I come out with my little sheet music and it was “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, that’s what I came up with.
So I hand it to the accompanist and she looks at it and looks at me and looks at the director, so I start to sing (Washington begins to sing very awkwardly) and they’re not saying anything so I’m thinking I must be getting better, so I start getting into it. But after the first verse, the director cuts me off: “Thank you. Thank you very much, you’ll be hearing from me.” So I assumed I didn’t get the job but the next part of the audition he called me back. The next part of the audition is the acting part of the audition. I figure, I can’t sing, but I know I can act. So the paired me with this guy and again I didn’t know about musical theater; musical theater is big so you can reach everyone all the way back in the stadium. And I’m more from a realistic naturalistic kind of acting where you actually talk to the person next to you. So I don’t know what my line was, my line was “Hand me the cup.” and his line was “Well, I will hand you the cup my dear, and it will be there to be handed to you.”
I said, “Okay. Should I give you the cup back?” “Oh yes you should give it back to me because you know that is my cup and it should be given back to me!” I didn’t get the job. But here’s the thing, I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back. I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next audition. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and failed but it didn’t matter because you know what? There’s an old saying, you hang around a barbershop long enough, sooner or later you will get a haircut. You will catch a break.
Last year I did a play called Fences on Broadway and I won a Tony Award. And I didn’t have to sing, by the way. And here’s the kicker, it was at the Court Theater; it was at the same theater where I failed that first audition thirty years prior. The point is, and I’ll pick up the pace, every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed but do you have guts to fail?
Here’s my second point about failure, if you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. My wife told me this great expression, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.” Les Brown, a motivational speaker, made an analogy about this. Imagine you’re on your deathbed and standing around your death bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential. The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed angry, disappointed and upset. They say, “We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say. “And now we go to the grave together.” So I ask you today, “How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?” You’ve invested a lot in your education and people invested in you. And let me tell you, the world needs your talents, man, does it ever.
I just got back from Africa a couple of days ago so if I’m rambling on it’s because of jet lag. I just got back from South Africa. It’s a beautiful country, but there are places with terrible poverty that need help. And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. The Middle East needs your help. Japan needs your help. Alabama and Tennessee need your help. Louisiana needs your help. Philadelphia needs your help. The world needs a lot and we need it from you, we really do, we need it from you the young people. So get out there. Give it everything you’ve got whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasures because remember this, you’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse.
I’ll say it again. You will never see a U-haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Ancient Egyptians tried it and all they got was robbed! So the question is, what are you going to do with what you have? And I’m not talking about how much you have. Some of you are business majors. Some of you are theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long suffering. Whatever it is, what are you going to do with what you have?
Now here’s my last point about failure, sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going. Your life will never be a straight path. I began at Fordham University as a pre-med student. That lasted until I took a course called “Cardiac Morphogenesis.” I couldn’t read it; I couldn’t say it; I sure couldn’t pass it. Then I decided to go pre-law, then journalism. With no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction down.
I was a, 1.8 GPA one semester, and the university very politely suggested it might be better to take some time off. I was 20 years old, at my lowest point. And then one day, and I remember the exact day, March 27th, 1975, I was helping out in the beauty shop my mother owned in Mount Vernon.
An older woman who was considered one of the elders in town and I didn’t know her personally but every time I looked in the mirror she was staring at me and she just kept staring at me. Every time I looked at her she just kept giving me these strange looks. She finally took the drier off her head and said something to me I’ll never forget, first of all she said, “Someone give me a piece of paper.” She said, “Young boy, I have a spiritual prophecy. You are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.” Keep in mind that I was 20 years old and flunked out of school and like a wise-ass, I’m thinking to myself: “Does she have anything in that crystal ball about me getting back into school?” But maybe she was on to something because later that summer, while working as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Connecticut; we put on a talent show for the campers. After that show, another counselor came up to me and asked, “Have you ever thought of acting? You should. You’re good at that.”
When I got back to Fordham that fall I changed my major once again, for the last time. And in the years that followed, just as that woman getting her hair done predicted, I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies. Millions who, up ‘till this day, I couldn’t see while I was talking to them and they couldn’t see me; they could only see the movie. But I see you today and I’m encouraged by what I see. I’m strengthened by what I see and I love what I see.
One more page, then I’ll shut up. Let me conclude with one final point. And actually the President kind of brought it up; it has to do with the movie Philadelphia. She stole my material. Many years ago I did this movie called Philadelphia. We filmed some scenes right here on campus.
Philadelphia came out in 1993, when most of you were probably still in diapers, some of the professors, too. but it’s a good movie; rent it on Netflix. I get 23 cents every time you rent it. Parents up there, rent it. Tell your friends too! It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by yours truly, takes on the case. In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today.
You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail. Because taking a risk is not just about going for a job. It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and ideas. In the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, to take risks. He is very, very slowly overcomes his fears, and I feel ultimately his heart becomes flooded with love. And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today, to not only take risks, but to be open to life, to accept new views and to be open to new opinions, to be willing to speak at commencement at one of the country’s best universities even though you’re scared stiff. While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have that’s what’s going to define you.
So members of the class of 2011, this is your mission. When you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life and maybe even tonight after a few too many glasses of champagne, remember this, fall forward.
Congratulations, I love you, God bless you; I respect you.