When it comes to deliciously complicated back stories (and sideshows), movies don’t get better than Fences, the soon-to-be Oscar contender based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play starring and directed by Denzel Washington, with Scott Rudin among its producers.
Back in 1987, Wilson’s play was set up at Paramount as a potential vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who was looking for a serious role. He had his eye on a part as the older son of Troy Maxson, the aging former ballplayer currently played by Washington in both a stage version of the play and the movie. As it turns out, Murphy’s dramatic turn is only now arriving, with Bruce Beresford’s Mr. Church (since Dreamgirls, for which he had an Oscar nomination, was musical dramedy).
By December 1988, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, now extinct, had Murphy rewriting his own character, which, according to the paper, he thought “came off too wimpy in the play.”
Eventually, he left the writing to Wilson. But the project became tangled in the playwright’s insistence that Fences, which deals with racial barriers and intricate family relations, should have a black director. “Until the industry is ready to hire a black to direct De Niro or Redford, blacks should at least be able to direct their own experience,” he said in January 1990, at a conference sponsored by the California Afro-American Museum.
Wilson elaborated in a piece written for Spin magazine that year. “I usually have to repeat my request, ‘I want a black director,’ as though it were a complex statement in a foreign tongue,” he wrote.
He added: “White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.”
Actually, Paramount was trying to accommodate. A black executive, Kevin Jones, worked on the film. By 1992, Paramount was in talks with John Singleton, who was then 24 years old, and riding high on his success with Boyz N The Hood.
Ultimately, Singleton bowed out, as did Murphy, who donned a fat suit and made gazillions of dollars with The Nutty Professor.
Rudin, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, appears to have gotten involved in about 1997, when he was still a powerhouse producer at Paramount. He was doing his share of silliness in those days. Remember, Sister Act and Sister Act 2 were his. But he was already yearning for a New York stage career; and Fences was a chance to work with Wilson.
Eventually, Rudin sent Wilson’s script to Washington, as a potential director. Washington, according to people who have tracked the project through the years, said yes; but he wanted to revive it first on Broadway, which he did, playing opposite Viola Davis, who is now in the film.
Wilson died in 2005. But his one-man campaign for black-directed film became something of a movement — leading to some further complications and sideshows this year.
Fences, which won’t be finished until mid-November and opens nationwide Christmas Day, is beginning to look like a serious rival to Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation. That one is from Fox Searchlight, where Rudin has had some signal successes, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had four Oscars and nine nominations, including one for best picture, in 2015.
In a further complication, Birth and Fences — now competing, along with Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight from A24 and perhaps others, to carry the torch for black cinema — share a production company, Canada’s Bron Studios, which has credits on both.
But Rudin, of course, is a past master at handling complexities. Back in 2007, for instance, he had both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood in the works, each set up at Miramax and Paramount Vantage. He shared a Best Picture Oscar as a producer of No Country, and helped Daniel Day-Lewis to the Best Actor award, as an executive producer of Blood.
With some guidance from Rudin, maybe Bron can parlay its split hand into the same kind of win-win.