Denzel Washington Looks Like A Contender In Toronto, But Not For His Festival Films

Oh, those Canadians. They have a quietly assertive way of getting their point across. Just this morning, Toronto’s Globe and Mail ran a big, front-page photo of Denzel Washington at Thursday night’s premiere of The Magnificent Seven, smiling like the cat who ate the canary. It sat atop a headline that read: “Birth of a controversy: Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation was being positioned as one of the year’s most important films until old sexual assault charges against its co-creators resurfaced.”

Denzel up, Nate down, at least for the moment.

Parker will have his shot on Friday night, as The Birth Of A Nation screens in back-to-back presentations at the Toronto Film Festival. But it’s obvious that Denzel Washington, a seasoned actor and filmmaker with two Oscars and four more nominations under his belt, is starting his move toward the next round of prizes.

Clearly, The Magnificent Seven is not his contender. It is an action-drama, directed by Antoine Fuqua, with Washington in not quite the lead, but as the leading character in an ensemble cast. But, without ever saying so, Washington is here laying track for his next Oscar shot, Fences, which he directed, and in which he co-stars with Viola Davis in a film based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson.

Paramount won’t open Fences until December, and the film certainly won’t be seen here in Toronto. But Washington is highly visible. And he’s doing a brilliant job of playing the industry statesman, engaged and aware, but slightly above the kind of turmoil that has ensnared Parker and his film. When reporters tried to bait him into a complaint about Hollywood diversity at a press conference Thursday, Washington would have none of it. “We don’t talk about it, because you guys talk about,” he said.

Gone was a sense of grievance that found Washington on stage behind Spike Lee at the 2015 Governors Awards, audibly muttering, “Nothing’s changed.” Of The Magnificent Seven, he simply said: “It’s a movie for people to enjoy.” Fuqua backed him up with a comparison to Clint Eastwood.

Elsewhere at the Toronto festival, Washington will figure Friday in Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Again, he is not exactly the lead, but he’s close: Washington voices John Coltrane, who was a man of many notes, but few recorded words. For Washington, the documentary turn will show that’s he’s deeply attuned to black culture, an impression that will helped along by framing interviews with the likes of Cornel West and Wayne Shorter.

Washington increasingly looks like a contender here. But in the long run it’s about Fences, not Chasing Trane or The Magnificent Seven.

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