On Tuesday, it was announced that Fences is up for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and Best Adapted Screenplay, which, if it wins, will be posthumously awarded to playwright August Wilson. The American playwright behind Fences and “The Pittsburgh Cycle” -- 10 plays, including Fences, about the black experience set in different decades -- died in 2005 before seeing the play adapted for the screen.
In fact, it took nearly 30 years for the play, which had been optioned by Paramount in the late-‘80s and was originally set to star Eddie Murphy, to finally get released in theaters this past year.
For producer Todd Black, who helped fight to get Wilson’s play adapted to screen, it’s that fourth nomination that’s truly special. “There were challenges throughout [the production] in order to stay honest to the words because the words were the star more than anything,” he tells ET by phone shortly after the nominations were announced. “At every turn, we needed to stay honest to August Wilson’s screenplay and play.”
During production, while trying to service the needs of Washington, who not only starred but directed the project, Black would have to ask: “Does it honor the screenplay?”
In a brief chat with ET, the producer explains the significance of Fences’ multiple nominations and what it means to see Wilson’s work succeed onscreen.
ET: Obviously, this is such a big day for Fences but also for diversity at the Oscars. How does it feel to be nominated?
Todd Black: Just on a really personal level, I can't even tell you how good it feels this year for the diversity, this year for where we are in our country. I think, for so many reasons, all of us that made the movie -- it was a big group of us -- we are so proud of the movies actually out this year. The timing couldn't have been better in so many of our minds to have it really resonate even louder. I think it would have resonated at any time but I think this year, particularly, it was needed and I think it just resonated even louder because of that. It felt really gratifying and satisfying that people have embraced the film and that we've done so well with the film. And for the Academy to recognize it in these four categories, especially for the Adapted Screenplay by August Wilson, that's the icing on top of the cake.
The journey to screen was a long one for Fences. And for it to get nominated in addition to being in theaters, tell me the significance of that accomplishment and what it means to you and the team.
[It took] a long, long time to get something off the ground. But, you know, that's just what it takes sometimes. Until Denzel came into the picture and had the knowledge and the power to say this is what I want to do, that's what it took. Yes, it's incredibly gratifying, and yes, it took an incredibly long time. But that's sometimes what happens on certain projects. You know, they take a long time and you just have to stay with them.
I have to imagine this will open the door for other August Wilson plays to find their way to the screen. Is that something you’re actively thinking about?
Scott and I are not involved but Denzel has sold the other nine plays of the cycle to HBO. He will be involved with HBO as a producer. I don't know if he'll be directing or acting in them. I think Ma Rainey is the next one. But I do think it opens up the world for looking at other plays, if they are adaptable into screenplay. I think it's really great for the theater world.
In addition to Fences in theaters, Jitney is on Broadway right now. What does it mean for audiences to have this pop culture moment -- both on stage and screen -- with August Wilson’s work?
For me, personally, the thing I'm most happy about is this is a man that is as equally important and as equally talented as our best American playwrights, from Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams to Eugene O'Neill. I mean, he's right up there with four or five other ones. That film audiences, not just theater audiences, are getting to be introduced to August Wilson for the first time is incredibly gratifying. That couldn't be more exciting for me. That August gets his day in the sun with what is probably one of his best-written plays into movie form is just so exciting for me. I come from the theater world and I was a theater major at USC. So I'm really, personally, incredibly gratified that we're able to bring this great American playwright -- one of the greatest -- to the big screen 30-some odd years later. That for me is the most exciting, that the adapted screenplay got the nomination. That's a huge win for us on every level.