2016 Awards Profile: ‘Fences’ from Denzel Washington

Denzel Viola Fences

Welcome to the 2016 Awards Profiles series, where we talk about high and low-profile films coming to a theater near you at some point this year.  We will analyze the potential for these films to be players for the Academy Awards, and while many of these have the potential to be recognized, many will not either by quality or being pushed back to the following year.  For the next eight weeks, we will bring you a film every weekday to talk about their potential.  If you have a suggestion, please include it in the comments below.  If you missed a film, click on the tag or category Awards Profile.

Directed by: Denzel Washington

Written by: August Wilson, based on August Wilson’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Starring: Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, and Saniyya Sydney

SynopsisPer VarietyFences is the story of a one-time promising baseball player (Washington), now working as a Pittsburgh garbage collector, and the complicated relationships with his wife (Davis), son (Adepo), and friends.

Why It Could Succeed:

Fences itself.  When it comes to African American theatre in America, August Wilson is the premier playwright and his Fences is one of the two most importance plays in African American theatre history.  Simply, the play Fences is a masterpiece.  The role of Troy Maxson has won TWO actors Tonys: James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington.  The role of Rose has won TWO actress Tonys (albeit in both Featured and Lead): Mary Alice and Viola Davis.  The roles of Corey (played by Courtney B. Vance in the original production and Jovan Adepo here), Jim Bono (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson here), and Gabriel (played by Mykelti Williamson here) have all received Tony nominations for their actors over the two Broadway productions of Fences.

The film is PRODUCED by the great Scott Rudin.  It’s produced, helmed, and starring the most successful black actor of all time in a role only slightly too young for him.  A cynic could even try to convince you that #OscarSoWhite could help it.  But finally, and most importantly, there’s Viola Davis.  Hollywood’s reigning thespian queen has penciled herself on the red carpet of every foreseeable award show for her work on TV’s How to Get Away With Murder, for which she’s won an Emmy and two SAGs.  The marvelous Davis is in a very unique position at the Oscars, I believe.  She has a very rare, very viable, and yet unexpired IOU from the AMPAS for a dubious loss in 2011 that left an immediate bad taste in the mouth of the most devout La Streep cultist.  Add to that the fact that she’s bound to ace Rose AND she’s an amazing actress, one wonders how she could lose.   What’s not to be excited about?

The film also has the splendid female DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt, Far from the Madding Crowd, and the upcoming The Girl on the Train) on board.  Production Designer David Gropman is a two-time Oscar nominee (Life of Pi, The Cider House Rules) and he should have a LOT to play with taking us to Troy’s neighborhood in 1957 Pittsburgh.  Denzel is a tad too old for the role, but I imagine some impressive makeup work will make him believable.  Likewise, beloved films and period pieces usually make it into film editing and costume design, respectively.

Ever since it was officially announced that Fences would be a 2016 release, I’ve consistently said that I think it’s going to be our 4th film to win the Big Five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Kinda have to stick with that until proven wrong.

Why It May Not Succeed:

How many Oscars did August: Osage County win, hot off its Tony haul and Pulitzer Prize win?  Or Doubt?  Or Rent?  Drawing a blank?  Me, too.  Having a strong pedigree can be just dandy unless your film doesn’t translate well to the big screen.

Denzel is a competent director, but with Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and an episode of Grey’s Anatomy not exactly inspiring confidence, one justifiably wonders how his direction will be on Fences, just his fourth directorial effort since 2002.  And how will it play with Denzel being center stage as producer, director, and star?  Hollywood has never had to “deal” with a non-white man playing this role in the Oscar spotlight.

As for Denzel winning both Best Actor and Best Director…well, no one has ever done that before…not even for two separate movies; Denzel would be the first person ever to win Oscars for acting and directing…and Best Actor would be his historic third acting win.  A lot to ask, but also potentially a lot to celebrate.  He’s Denzel after all.

#OscarSoWhite.  How will Season 3 play?  Will the AMPAS, indignant as ever, spurn films focusing on diverse stories and people of color acting their hearts out?  Or will they seek to overcompensate for the pox of their house the last two years?  In the nearly 90 years of the Oscars, only 2 films have received nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress when both those nominees were people of color–Sounder and What’s Love Got to Do With It, and only the former was “loved” by the Academy.

Even if the film isn’t a powerhouse in every category, perhaps Viola Davis can use Fences to be first woman of color to receive more than 2 Oscar nominations in the nearly 90 years of the Academy Awards.  And even if the film is a flop, we’ve recently seen Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron, etc. take films with very little love/nominations to a Best Actress win.  Then again, have you taken a look at this year’s Best Actress race?  Impressive!

Oscar Potential:

Best Picture – Denzel Washington, Scott Rudin, and Todd Black
Best Director – Denzel Washington
Best Actor – Denzel Washington
Best Actress – Viola Davis
Best Supporting Actor – Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, and Stephen McKinley Henderson
Best Supporting Actress – Viola Davis (original Broadway production had Rose as a Featured Actress and AMPAS bought Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara, so we have to acknowledge that this is probably on the table for Paramount)
Best Adapted Screenplay – August Wilson
Best Cinematography – Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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Check out the latest
Oscar Predictions
and see where Fences ranks!