LOS ANGELES — Denzel Washington was the man of the hour Thursday night, with everyone from Julia Roberts to Spike Lee turning out to celebrate the actor as this year's recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award.
But when he finally took the stage to accept the honor, he did something unexpected: At his own award ceremony, Washington turned the spotlight away from himself and gave his wife of 40 years, Pauletta Washington, her own standing ovation.
The crowd of multigenerational Hollywood A-listers, from Michael B. Jordan and Mahershala Ali to Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman, readily obliged.
"I would not be alive without Pauletta Washington," Washington said. "I wouldn't survive."
It's a difficult task to have a moment stand out in an evening that included a surprise Beyoncé appearance (there briefly to present an honor to director Melina Matsoukas) and an earth-shattering rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" by Jennifer Hudson that brought Washington to his feet, but he managed to do it.
As Roberts, Tyson and others attested throughout the evening, the two-time Academy Award-winner is a family man first. Seated alongside Pauletta Washington, his son Malcolm, Lee, Tyson and directors Carl Franklin and Ed Zwick, the 64-year-old was, for two hours, taken on an emotional tour through his storied career in Hollywood — from eager newcomer to movie star to acclaimed director — by those who were by his side.
"We're all here because we love Denzel," said Lee, who has directed Washington in four movies ("Mo' Better Blues," ''He Got Game," ''Malcolm X" and "Inside Man"). "Denzel represents our black manhood." Lee also said that, although he might be biased, "Malcolm X is the greatest performance ever committed to celluloid."
And others were just as effusive. Roberts recalled that working with him on "The Pelican Brief" was like "working with the Beatles."
He is, as Jamie Foxx put it, "someone who is just better than everybody else ... when it comes to acting!"
The American Film Institute brought out a host of the next generation's brightest talents to talk about Washington's impact on them, too.
"Mr. Washington's arrival was a seismic moment for my generation. You paved the way," Ali said. "Your influence, your reach transcends race without ever denying it."
Michael B. Jordan said he was inspired by the story that while filming "Glory," Washington kept wearing his fake scars in a scene where he had his shirt on. Jordan employed the same technique for his "Black Panther" character.
Chadwick Boseman even went so far as to say, "There is no 'Black Panther' without Denzel Washington."
Issa Rae brought Washington to tears of laughter as she recounted the very adult noises she remembers her mom and aunt making while watching his movies when she was a little girl. She came to understand it, she said, when she watched "Devil in A Blue Dress" when she was a little older.
Washington laughed heartily when Jodie Foster said they were all there to, "kiss your black a--," and yelling "Let it out, Morgan!" when Freeman took a long pause after announcing with an expletive how jealous he was.
And when it finally came time for him to speak, in addition to thanking his wife for "40 years of sacrifice and 40 years of forgiveness," Washington used his moment on stage to talk about God and those who have helped him along the way.
"If nothing else, I'm living proof of the power of God," Washington said. "I like acting. I like making movies ... But my love for God is stronger than anything else."
The ceremony will be broadcast June 20 at 10 p.m., on TNT.