The 2017 Oscar nominations include a bittersweet victory for a man who didn’t live to see it. Playwright August Wilson, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, died in 2005. He left behind the screenplay for his play Fences, which wasn’t made until over a decade later. Just how that came about, and why, is a story you might not have heard without the Oscars in the first place.
Wilson’s nomination, more than ten years after his death, is not technically the longest wait for a posthumous Oscar. That goes to musician Larry Russell, whose score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1954 film Limelight was nominated and won in 1972 thanks to a technicality related to its delayed U.S. release. It is, however, unique in that it stems from Wilson’s control of his work. Fences, part of Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, first debuted on stage in 1983 and arrived on Broadway in 1987, with James Earl Jones playing the lead character, a former baseball player and current sanitation worker left bitter by the fact he wasn’t allowed into the major leagues.
Fences won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize for drama, and established his reputation as a one of the titans of 20th-century playwriting. It also drew the attention of Hollywood, leading Paramount to buy the rights for Eddie Murphy. Wilson even wrote the screenplay. However, Wilson was adamant on one point: The film had to have a black director. Wilson discussed the issue directly in a 1990 op-ed essay in the New York Times:
I usually have had to repeat my request, “I want a black director,” as though it were a complex statement in a foreign tongue. I have often heard the same response: “We don’t want to hire anyone just because they are black.” What is being implied is that the only qualification any black has is the color of his skin.
In the film industry, the prevailing attitude is that a black director couldn’t do the job, and to insist upon one is to make the film “unmakeable,” partly because no one is going to turn a budget of $15 million over to a black director. That this is routinely done for novice white directors is beside the point.
Wilson’s insistence led many to speculate the movie was shelved because the studio couldn’t find a director Wilson, Murphy, and Paramount agreed on. Paramount reached out to Barry Levinson, noted for his character-focused period dramas at the time, but Levinson stepped aside.
That would seem to have been it, especially when Wilson passed away in 2005. In 2010, however, prolific stage and film producer Scott Rudin sent Denzel Washington Wilson’s screenplay, hoping he’d direct the movie. But Washington felt he had to perform it as a play first, which led to a 13-week Broadway revival that racked up ten Tony nominations, and laid the groundwork for the movie; Viola Davis starred alongside Washington in both revival and movie.
Rudin didn’t just send Washington the script because he was a star who could get it made. Washington’s previous two movies as a director, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, focuses on stories like Fences: character-driven narratives about how people overcome, or succumb, to their failings. Washington, in other words, was the director for the movie Wilson wanted a quarter of a century ago.
While Wilson is the sole credited screenwriter, the screenplay itself had reportedly minor work done by Tony Kushner, another acclaimed playwright, whose work includes Angels In America and the screenplay to Lincoln. But the movie itself is, in the end, Wilson’s victory, even if he didn’t live to see it. We’ll never know if Fences is the movie Wilson imagined from his work, but at least it was made the way he had hoped to see it.