Hollywood's Fences

Viola Davis deserved to win last night, but not for supporting actress

Viola Davis took home a Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes on Sunday night for her role in the film adaptation of Fences, a play by the late black playwright August Wilson. Her performance was incredible, so I’m happy it was acknowledged by Golden Globes voters. But there’s just one thing that confused me about her win: the category.

Now, I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize winning play twice, I’ve seen a production of it, and on the film’s opening day my family arrived so early the previous screening wasn’t even out yet. I’m familiar enough with Fences to make one small determination: Davis’ character, Rose Maxson, is not a supporting role.

According to Indiewire, Davis and her team at Paramount decided to enter her in the Supporting Actress category because the Best Actress field was too crowded. “While Davis has huge respect from the Actors Branch and is expected to explode on-screen in Fences, she could have a better chance of taking home the gold statue in supporting,” Indiewire reported in October.

Back then, Davis’ competition in the Best Actress category could have included a long list of white women, including Amy Adams (Arrival), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)—and the list goes on.

Ruth Negga’s (who is black but definitely didn’t win) breakout performance in Loving made the final list of nominees for Best Actress. While Focus Features mounted a campaign for her in that category, “very few prognosticators took her candidacy seriously, as if she was Carol Moseley Braun running for president in 2004 or something,” Filmmaker Magazine contributing editor Brandon Harris wrote to me in an email.

Davis and her reps didn’t do anything out of the ordinary here. According to The Wrap, campaigning for a supporting role nomination is a familiar tactic used by studios when chances of a more hot-shot actresses taking home a statue are better. But award voters, who tend to be overwhelmingly old white guys, don’t have to acquiesce to a studio’s campaign. As The Wrap explains:

What’s getting lost in all this jockeying and strategizing is that the decision isn’t really in the hands of the studios or the Oscar campaigners. They can send out letters or take out ads suggesting appropriate categories, but the real placement is up to voters in the Academy’s actors branch, who have the right to nominate performers in whatever category they think is appropriate.

Similarly, Golden Globe voters have the power to bigfoot the wishes of the studios, and even Viola Davis and her reps.

Fences is about a black family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and ‘60s.Denzel Washington (who also directed and produced the film) plays Troy Maxson, a black ex-con garbage man whose particular and understandable agita is getting a slice of the white man’s pie. In this case, it’s to be a driver instead of the guy on the back of the truck hauling the trash from the sidewalk onto the truck. It’s not only a more comfortable position, but it’s more distinguished too.

His wife, Rose, thinks that her husband’s aggressive requests to drive the car, instead of riding on its back, can probably get him fired.

In gunning for the Supporting Actress award, Davis seemingly took a cue from her character in Fences. White women have driven the truck for so long. The last time a black woman won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama was Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple in 1986. And black women have nabbed Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress quite a few times in recent years: Jennifer Hudson in 2007 for Dreamgirls, Mo’Nique in 2010 for Precious, and Octavia Spencer in 2012 for The Help. The last time a black woman won an Oscar for Best Actress was Halle Berry in 2002 for Monsters. So it appears Davis’ calculus was correct. She knew that going up against Hollywood’s racism to get into the driver’s seat was too much the Herculean task.

Huppert won the Best Actress award last night. But in my version of the 2017 Golden Globes, Viola was the driver.