Heading into the thick of awards season, Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort, Fences, is getting the kind of early screening reaction that often fuels late-breaking contenders to the front of the Oscar race.
The anticipated film screened for industry figures — including members of the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ nominating committee, AMPAS voters, awards bloggers, and journalists — on Saturday in Los Angeles, and was followed by a Q&A featuring Washington along with fellow cast members Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney.
Full reviews for the film are currently under embargo, though early social media reactions indicate Davis and Washington are fierce competitors to be reckoned with on the road to the Oscars.
“Fences, full of titanic performances and well-measured support, will be a major awards contender. Viola Davis is unbeatable. Sorry, ladies,” Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan tweeted shortly after the screening. “Denzel Washington will be hard to surpass in Best Actor. As garrulous, domineering Troy Maxson, he’s likely to earn his third Oscar.”
The Pittsburgh-shot drama, based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, follows an aging garbage man, Troy (Washington), who grapples with the ghosts of regret as he reflects on his past as a Negro League baseball player while struggling to provide for his family — including his wife, Rose (Davis) — as tensions rise over racial segregation in 1950s Pennsylvania.
Though Davis and Washington previously won Tony Awards for their respective leading performances in a 2010 stage adaptation of Wilson’s play, news that Paramount will campaign Davis as a supporting actress sparked speculation that her placement is yet another instance of category fraud, as the current Best Actress race is one of the most crowded in recent years, which would have potentially limited Davis’ prospects at cementing frontrunner status as heavy-hitting performances from Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Ruth Negga (Loving), Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) jockey for one of five slots in the Oscar bracket.
Buchanan, however, argued that Davis’ performance is perhaps appropriately placed in the supporting category, where she’ll likely square off against challengers like Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women), Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe), and the ladies of Hidden Figures (Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer) as the season rages on.
“Yes, Viola in Supporting. She’s the female lead… buuuut Denzel so dominates the movie that they have a case in that category,” he tweeted, while Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone called Davis’ performance the “heart of the film.”
Stone also praised Washington’s direction, noting the actor-filmmaker honored Wilson’s craft in his resistance to upstage the subtleties in the original play’s writing, which is reportedly preserved in the film adaptation’s screenplay.
“Fences blew me away. It’s all writing and acting but to watch pros like that with that script. I was bedazzled,” Stone wrote. “Fences is like watching Mamet or Shakespeare. Don’t waste my time with a review if you don’t get that it’s all about the language.”
IndieWire’s Anne Thompson similarly praised the work of Washington and Davis, though she also championed Williamson’s performance as Troy’s brother, Gabriel.
“Denzel Washington knocks Fences out of the park as director and actor; Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson will also be Oscar Contenders,” she tweeted, noting the film is an actors’ showcase. Buchanan echoed her sentiment, tweeting: “Fences has a few Supporting Actor contenders. Mykelti Williamson is the flashiest but I preferred smart, subtle Jovan Adepo as Denzel’s son.”
Fences, slated for release on Christmas Day, hits theaters amid a bustling month that will see the release of fellow Best Picture competitors like La La Land, Jackie, Hidden Figures, and 20th Century Women. Until its Saturday showing, the film was one of the few remaining Oscar hopefuls that had yet to hold a major screening. All eyes now turn to Martin Scorsese’s prospective Best Picture nominee Silence, due Dec. 23 in theaters, a final cut of which remains to be seen by public audiences.
Read on to see what film journalists are saying about Fences‘ first screening in the tweets below.