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Denzel Washington Deserves the Oscar on Merit, Not Morality

The Best Actor race has become a crapshoot due to allegations against front-runner Casey Affleck. But as his performance in ‘Fences’ proves, Denzel is a worthy contender regardless.

(Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration)

As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.

Is a vote for Denzel Washington necessarily a vote against Casey Affleck? We may as well start there. Until January 29, when Washington, 62-year-old director and star of Fences, beat Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for the SAG Award for best actor, it seemed Affleck’s Oscar chances were more or less a lock. Now, FiveThirtyEight has the men neck and neck.

“What happened?” wondered The Hollywood Reporter after the SAGs. “It’s certainly possible that SAG-AFTRA members simply liked Washington’s performance more. … But it’s also possible that something else was on voters’ minds that has nothing to do with either man’s work onscreen.” The 2010 sexual harassment allegations against Affleck that resurfaced in November are more urgent than any movie. When it comes to doling out film awards, however, it seems we still can’t all agree on whether those allegations should inform how we feel about giving awards to the people acting in the films.

It’s strange to think that an actor of Washington’s caliber — that is, of the two-time-Oscar-winning, box-office-smashing caliber — has become a contender, in the industry’s eyes, only thanks to the alleged moral failures of the front-runner. And while reprising a role for which he already won a Tony, no less. Fences, written for the stage and adapted for the screen by August Wilson, tells the story of Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old black man living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s with his wife, Rose, and teenage son, Cory. It’s the story of a man who believes life owes him more than he’s gotten: a story about a man who’s realized he’ll never fulfill his dreams and feels this is due to his race, and who goes about the bitter business of being an employee, father, husband, and friend — a man people depend on — accordingly. It’s a tremendous part made legendary, onstage, by James Earl Jones. Washington more than holds his own, onscreen.

It’s crass to talk about art like it’s a horse race. Then again, we aren’t just talking about art: We’re talking about the Oscars. And what it takes to win a Best Actor award is not merely a great performance, but a good campaign. A good campaign comes packaged in an awards narrative, as will the story of whoever wins, in this case. If it’s Affleck, the story goes, it’ll be because the Academy doesn’t care about alleged danger to women on sets. If Washington squeaks it out, on the other hand, it’ll be because the Academy cared that much.

Both are exaggerations: The truth is undoubtedly some messy in-between. But we exaggerate the importance of acting awards due to what acting is. We don’t see writers or cinematographers. We see their work in action — through the actors. Acting is a curious mix of person and persona, role and soul. Of course, then, broader questions about who they are matter to how we make sense of who they pretend to be. But the actual acting matters, too. I suspect Washington would bristle at the implicit hierarchy there, with context seemingly coming before performance. He strikes me as the kind of actor to believe the acting, not the narrative, comes first. “It’s about the work,” he told IndieWire recently. “We’re actors. Celebrity is different. We’re actors. People say, ‘No, you’re a movie star.’ I say, ‘No, I’m a more-popular actor.’”

Fair enough. And yet as one of the few remaining classic Hollywood stars, a man as technically gifted as he is financially appealing, he’s enough of a celebrity that every unplanned riff on his persona startles us with new insights into what he’s capable of. You grow up watching an actor, you get to learn their tics, their fallback gestures. You develop a sense for when they’re phoning it in. Candid moments prove revelatory. Nothing in Washington’s repertoire prepares you for #UncleDenzel, nor for the hilariously grotesque range of faces he made while schooling a red-carpet journalist on the perils of “fake news.” This is Denzel in his natural habitat, in front of the camera but not really. It’s not stuff you’ve seen in movies before. That’s the goofy excitement of it.

Going into Fences I was looking for that freshness, that spontaneity. I wanted a new Washington, like the one I saw glimpses of in his last Oscar-nominated performance, for Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. In one miraculous scene he terrifyingly trembles and stutters his way through a drunken stupor in a fashion I’d never seen any actor, let alone Denzel, do before. It was so exhilarating, I remember pausing it in order to watch it again and again.

That new man isn’t always there in Fences, because he isn’t meant to be. Familiarity is essential to the role. And yet enough of that unknown is there for us to see Washington seemingly sum up his career in a performance that caps off everything he’s good at and then some. His deeply rhythmic flair for prose. The imposing largesse of his body as he stalks his backyard, picking fights with his wife and son. It’s a big, loud, talkative, theatrical performance. Full-bodied and textured and, in its finest moments, dangerous. It’s a performance that demands our attention. The only narrative that winds up mattering, in the end, is the character’s own.

“We’re not here because of #OscarsSoWhite,” says Washington in a video interview with The Guardian. “August Wilson is a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. When we did Fences on Broadway, we had more nominations than any play in the history of American theater.” (Fences is tied for the record high with Coast of Utopia.) He smiles wryly. “August Wilson is not here because of what someone tweeted, or whatever, texted, a year ago.”

Washington first read the screenplay seven years ago and eventually set course on making it into a film — starring, directing, and producing, with the plan to ultimately bring all 10 plays in Wilson’s chronicle of black American life to the screen. That’s quite a feat. In the case of Fences, that means adapting a canonical work — and an especially theatrical role — to the screen with the respect and authority the play deserves.

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

Troy Maxson is a tough part. He wants so much — has so much! — but imagines himself a man with relatively little to show for it. He’s been married 18 years (Viola Davis, supporting actress front-runner, plays his wife in the movie), yet steps out with another woman and gets her pregnant. He spent 15 years in prison after killing a man in a robbery, and, as performed by Washington, wears that time on his body and in his speech, marking his freedom as his own by seemingly crowding everyone else out of every scene he’s in. His younger son has a chance at a football scholarship, but the prideful Troy, who believes he was cheated out of a baseball career, forces him to squander it. He’s a frustrating man. “Ain’t nobody gonna hold his hand when he get out there in that world,” Washington roars. “Times have changed, Troy,” says Rose, with trademark patience. “People change. The world’s changing and you can’t even see it.”

The late playwright Wilson openly longed for a black director to handle this material for the screen. “I understand why he said that,” Washington told The Guardian. “It has as much to do with the culture. I know what a woman’s hair smells like on a Sunday morning when she hits it with a hot comb. There’s a particular smell that’s mixed in with whatever my mother was making for breakfast.” It’s an eye for detail and experience Washington doesn’t bring to bear on his actual filmmaking, which hinders the movie, making it feel like it plays out in a practically context-free, theatrical vacuum. (Does no one in the neighborhood hear all of Troy’s boisterous shouting?) Then again, Washington’s (and Davis’s) performance does that work. Washington’s Troy says “I ain’t got to like you” to his son like a man who’s been there — just as Davis speaks through Rose like a woman who has been that woman or knows her.

Good actors perform; great actors imagine; the best actors clue you in on the realms of experience they’re drawing from and imagining. Fences is one of the few movies in recent memory to make me wonder who its actors were and where they’d been, simple means of explaining how they were able to channel these characters with the fullness of life Washington and Davis bring to the roles.

“Fifty-three was a different 53 in 1957,” Washington told The Guardian of playing a man nearly 10 years his junior. “So the life he lived, or a man like him lived, I imagine, was obviously tougher than any kind of life I live. But they were further along — back-breaking work and all that.” Troy is a man whose sense of intimacy is bound up with a sense of duty, and whose familial obligations are overridden with personal failure. That makes him as obstinate and unlikable as he is tragic, heartbreaking, and relatable. In Washington’s best moments in Fences, you can feel these impulses working all at once. “You live in my house,” Troy says while on a tear against his son, “fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed, because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you; I owe a responsibility to you.”

Washington doesn’t merely deliver the line to Cory: He fires it at all of us, with the kind of flair some might say is too big for the camera, better suited to the stage. But that’s the essence of Washington’s work here. In Fences, he gives us a man too spiritually and psychologically large for his own good by taking the risk of playing it too large for the medium — and it pays off. “There’s no real difference, in my mind … between stage acting and film acting,” Washington has said. The more accurate thing to say might be that Washington is so good that he collapses the difference and enriches us all accordingly.