Morgan Freeman has been so great for long that it’s easy to forget that the legendary movie star didn’t break out on the big screen until he was 50, in 1987’s Street Smart. Since then, the 83-year-old icon has appeared in more than 100 films and racked up five Oscar nominations. Now, on the eve of his latest release — the down-and-dirty crime thriller Vanquish (in theaters April 16, on VOD April 20) — we thought it was high time to count down Freeman’s top films. See if your favorites match ours.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In Frank Darabont’s Oscar-nominated male weepie, Freeman and Tim Robbins co-star as a pair of convicts sentenced to rot in Maine’s imposing Shawshank State Prison. Although the screenplay was adapted from a Stephen King novella, the film isn’t a horror story. Far from it. Rather, it’s a touching meditation on friendship as these two doomed souls struggle to hold on to hope in a place where hope goes to die. As Red, Freeman is spectacularly understated, mixing compassion, desperation, resignation and finally something like ecstasy as he finally tastes freedom and is reunited with his pal, Robbins’s Andy Dufresne, on a sunny beach in Mexico. It’s a movie that gets better and deeper with each viewing.
2. Unforgiven (1992)
Freeman has often said that his favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 1976 Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales. So when the actor finally had the chance to co-star with Eastwood in Unforgiven, he didn’t need to be asked twice. Ostensibly, the film is about a once-ruthless gunslinger named Bill Munny (Eastwood) who has left behind his bloody past only to be called back into action by his conscience to take down a sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman). But its message about the toll violence takes on a man’s soul can also be seen as a mea culpa of sorts from an actor and director who spent the first half of his career glorifying killing on the big screen. As his equally regretful best friend and old partner Ned Logan, Freeman gives a gorgeously nuanced performance that forces Eastwood to express emotional depths that he usually keeps hidden below the surface.
3. Glory (1989)
Based on a true story left out of most high school history books, Edward Zwick’s rousing and powerful war drama exhumes the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the country’s first all-Black unit during the Civil War, whose members showed tremendous courage despite being treated as less than second-class citizens. Matthew Broderick is excellent as the white officer commanding the group, but the film’s most ferocious and heartbreaking turns come from Freeman and Denzel Washington, who give master classes on the stoic bravery and fiery pride beneath their mud-and-blood-stained uniforms.
DON’T MISS THIS: 17 Essential Films About the Black Experience
Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
4. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
If Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance in this film feels so lived in that it transcends acting, that may be because he originated the role on stage. However, Bruce Beresford’s three-hankie screen version expands the play and gives it added dimensions and emotional weight. What could have easily been sappy (or worse, a tone-deaf exploration of race) is instead a marvelous and deeply affecting portrait of a Black chauffeur and his elderly Southern matron employer (Jessica Tandy) living out a sort of daily unspoken platonic love story, dependent on each other, despite the racial chasm that separates them. As Hoke Colburn, Freeman is the epitome of dignity — he doesn’t hit a single false note in this touching, timeless film.
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Reuniting with his old Unforgiven co-star in this heartrending Best Picture winner (for which Freeman would win his first — and, to date, only — Oscar), Freeman gives a knockout performance full of subtle emotional jabs rather than telegraphed haymakers. Eastwood is the headliner here, playing an aging fight trainer reluctant to take on a tenacious girl (Hilary Swank) who thinks she can be a boxer. And their slow-burning teacher-pupil/father-daughter relationship is the beating heart of the film. But that story wouldn’t work without Freeman as Eastwood’s oldest friend and conscience, Scrap, who melts his crotchety pal’s icy facade. As in Unforgiven, Freeman proves he’s a master at getting Eastwood to let his tough-guy guard down.
DON’T MISS THIS: The Coolest Clint Eastwood Movies Ever, Ranked!
6. Seven (1995)
Freeman and Brad Pitt co-star as police detectives investigating a string of unbearably gruesome serial killings that are being committed in accord with the seven deadly sins of the Bible. Thanks to the dark vision of David Fincher, Seven turns out to be more than just another grisly procedural. It’s loaded with bleak and rainy atmosphere, an escalating sense of dread and, in the end, a perversely sick sense of irony. On paper, you might have had to squint a little to see if and how the chemistry between Pitt and Freeman would work, but on screen, they are perfect complements: youth and age, brawn and brains, impulsiveness and deliberateness. A dark masterpiece.
7. Street Smart (1987)
Freeman had appeared on the big screen prior to this gritty urban crime drama, but this is the precise moment when audiences first sat up and really took notice, wondering, who is that guy?! The Academy took notice, too, rewarding Freeman’s harrowing turn with his first Oscar nomination. Freeman plays a murderous pimp named Fast Black … and he’s absolutely terrifying. So much so that anyone who saw this sleeper of a movie when it hit theaters in 1987 would have never guessed that one day this very same actor would wind up playing Nelson Mandela, the President of the United States and God.
Watch it: Street Smart, on Tubi
8. March of the Penguins (2005)
Okay, so Freeman is merely the narrator of this unlikely documentary blockbuster about the Odyssean mating rituals of the Antarctic emperor penguin, but he imbues what could have easily been a dry nature snoozefest with heart, hope and even humor. Freeman’s deep and slow baritone has always been one of the key weapons in his acting arsenal, but here it’s deployed front and center, lending this beautiful film the perfect measures of wonder and humanity.
9. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck cut his teeth as a filmmaker on this hard-boiled Boston crime drama adapted from one of Dennis Lehane’s page-turners. Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, and Michelle Monaghan are the private-eye leads here, but what makes the elder Affleck’s directorial debut really crackle is how he surrounds his two stars with heavyweight actors in colorful supporting roles that really turn every scene into a showcase. As Jack Doyle, the head of the Crimes Against Children police task force, Freeman lends the twisty yarn his signature gravitas, showing us just how high the stakes everyone is playing for really are. As always, Freeman is an actor who manages to do a lot with a little. There are worlds in every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth.
10. Amistad (1997)
Steven Spielberg’s fact-based epic about enslaved African Americans fighting for their lives and their freedom in 1830s America is, like Glory, the kind of movie that makes history come alive, freeing it from the yellowing pages of a textbook and making it vibrant on the silver screen. As abolitionist activist Theodore Joadson, Freeman is perfectly cast as a man all too conscious of slavery’s indelible mark as America’s original sin. Met with commercial indifference when it initially came out, Amistad is a movie worthy of reevaluation thanks in no small part to Freeman, who can always be counted on as any project’s secret weapon.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.