“He’s our shining prince,” director Ava Duvernay told Variety on the red carpet. “He truly is the embodiment of the totality of black masculinity that has been missing for so many years on screen before he arrived. He has picked up the baton of Sidney Poitier and the other greats [like] Ossie Davis and has done us all proud.”

DuVernay was talking about Denzel Washington at the Oscar winner’s AFI Life Achievement Award tribute on Thursday night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Julia Roberts, Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman and Cicely Tyson were just a handful of the other guests who gathered to toast the “Fences” star.

“The career is what I’m most proud of,” Washington told reporters on the red carpet. “The arc of if it, the longevity, the fact that I still have a desire to do it. You go through all of it, the thick and the thin and the thin and the thick.”

As the actor entered the ballroom to a standing ovation, he raised his hands in salute to the attendees sitting in the upper decks of the venue where the actor had received two Academy Awards, gave a kiss to his wife Pauletta and took his seat at his dais, soaking in the moment.

Early on in Washington’s big night, it seemed he might be overshadowed by Beyoncé, who made a surprise cameo at the event to present the Franklin J. Schaffner alumni medal to her constant collaborator director Melina Matsoukas. The special appearance, which lasted just a few minutes in the program, had all of the guests buzzing as they mixed and mingled through the three-course dinner served in the theater. “Black Panther” stars Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman traded stories in the center of the ballroom, Keegan-Michael Key sat with Frances McDormand (who will next co-star with Washington in Joel Coen’s “Macbeth”), actor-director Jodie Foster made her way to congratulate Matsoukas before chatting with Issa Rae, and W. Kamau Bell, who hosted a podcast from 2014-2017 called ‘Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period,” met his idol for the first time. But by the time Washington’s first presenter Jamie Foxx took the stage, the crowd’s moment with Queen Bey was almost totally forgotten.

The presenters’ speeches were bawdy, bold and memorable, while the interview packages with the actor were full of insight and wisdom about his life and career. Roberts was one of the next to speak about Washington, who she’d call the “greatest of any time,” smiling and laughing about how uncomfortable all of these people speaking about him was making her friend and “Pelican Brief co-star.

“I had really never seen anything like it,” Roberts recalled of working with the actor on set. “Honestly, it was like working as I would imagine with the Beatles — people screaming, women fainting in the street. I am amazed that I was never trampled in the crowds. I’m not kidding. But what I remember so well was meeting Pauletta and all your kids and seeing how you value your family, your home life above all else.”

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Mahershala Ali, the only other African-American actor to win two Academy Awards, also waxed poetic about the actor’s influence on his career and that of other young people of color. “Mr. Washington’s arrival was a seismic moment from my generation. It’s hard to articulate the pride we all felt in seeing one of us as a leading man working at the highest level,” Ali explained. “You paved the way you showed us the path, but what’s truly monumental is that your influence, your reach transcends race without ever denying it.”

Chadwick Boseman recounted the story of how Washington paid for him and ‘This Is Us’ star Susan Kelechi Watson to study acting at Oxford, which led the actor to set a goal of meeting Washington one day to thank him properly.

“There is no “Black Panther” without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me, my whole cast – that generation – stands on your shoulders,” Boseman declared in a rousing speech, while Michael B. Jordan shared a similar sentiment in his own remarks. “In the mind-numbing world we all live in, we need heroes, 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,” he added.

“Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua compared the actor to the great Muhammad Ali, an association similar to Washington’s “Inside Man” co-star Jodie Foster’s analysis of the star.

“He is a big presence on screen, but in the room, he’s actually even bigger. Trust me, when you are standing toe to toe with the very best and that he is, and you can see it in his eyes, he wants you to be great too,” the Oscar-winner shared with the crowd. “I’m so honored to have been in the ring with the champ, the undefeated champion of the art form of empathy.”

Washington’s final presenter was frequent collaborator, director Spike Lee, who opened up to Variety on the red carpet about what impressed him most when he first met the actor.

“Well, I just knew that I used a serious actor, and as they say, he was ‘bout it, bout it,’” he shared with Variety. “He was bout the work.”

Lee went on to call Washington’s turn as “Malcolm X” the actor’s most underrated performance, since he was nominated for, yet didn’t win the Academy Award for the role in 1993. During his presentation speech, Lee noted how the actor prepared for a year before shooting, cutting out alcohol and pork and wholly dedicating himself to portray the Civil Rights icon.

“There’ve been several references tonight to the G.O.A.T. We’re talking about Michael Jordan. We’re talking about Frank Sinatra. We’re talking about Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Miles Davis,” Lee explained. “That’s the rarefied air that Denzel Washington lives and breathe in. And Denzel, for me, represents our manhood. What you did in ‘Malcolm X’ has never been done before. I may be biased [but…] that’s the greatest performance ever on celluloid.”

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When Washington took the stage just shy of three hours after the program begin, he took his time to thank his presenters and those that supported him over the years, but he saved the biggest praise – and asked for the biggest ovation – for his family, especially his wife Pauletta, who held back tears as her husband spoke.

“The most important person in my life,” Washington declared. “40 years, 40 years of sacrifice, 40 years of forgiveness. She taught me about faith, spirituality, love — real love, unwavering love — in spite of myself. I would not be alive without Pauletta Washington. I wouldn’t be alive. I wouldn’t have survived.”

The emotional event will air as a televised special on Thursday, June 20 on TNT at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT). Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will also air the special in September 2019, during a night of programing dedicated to the actor.

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