Sunday, November 6, 2016

Early Praise for FENCES

I got excited last night.  Let me explain.  I logged on to Twitter after the special L.A. screening of FENCES.  I wish I could have been there for it.  I was thrilled to read some critics enthusiastically tweet that Viola Davis could very well be on her way to making Oscar history.
She won a Tony for her performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.  Her leading man, Denzel Washington, also won a Tony for the revival.  The two star in the film adaptation which was directed by Mr. Washington.
Here's some of what I read on Twitter when the L.A. screening of FENCES ended.  Anne Thompson of IndieWire (@akstanwyck):  "Denzel Washington knocks FENCES out of the park as director and actor.  Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson will also be Oscar contenders."  Kyle Buchanan. Senior Editor at New York Magazine/Vulture (@kylebuchanan):  "FENCES, full of titanic performances...will be a major awards contender.  Viola Davis is unbeatable."  Jeffrey Wells of online (@wellshwood):  "...great adaptation, great play, Oscar grandeur.  Best Pic, Actor, Supporting Actress."

Variety wrote:  "Denzel Washington, Viola Davis Become Instant Oscar Frontrunners in FENCES."  The article was written by Kris Tapley (@kristapley).

I didn't see any tweets from black critics and wondered if black press had a sizeable presence at the screening.

You know that the lack of diversity, the need for equal opportunities in Hollywood, was a red hot entertainment news issue this year -- especially after the Oscar nominations came out and the Twitter hashtag "Oscars So White" was drop-dead accurate for the second consecutive year.  Nationally-known film critics took Hollywood to task for its lack of diversity.

Those same critics fail to look in the mirror and see the refection of its own diversity-lacking field.  I've written before that the field of film critics we've seen on network TV over the decades was sorely in need of race and gender diversity.  It was predominantly white male.  The same applies to the field of TV hosts on movie channels.  Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and aired old Hollywood movies?  The only minority host on that channel in those days was Whoopi Goldberg  -- and she was there as a guest host because she's famous, she knows classic films, and she has an Oscar.  I've been a devoted TCM fan since 1999.  We occasionally -- not frequently -- see a black person in the monthly Guest Programmer spot.  I can't recall ever seeing a black solo host.  Elvis Mitchell, former film critic for The New York Times, did a series of interview specials.  That was back in 2008.  They're still in repeats.  TCM does book black guest co-hosts for theme programing that focuses on black history and/or the black experience in filmmaking, but not always.  Remember October of 2014?  Who was the host for the month-long salute to Africa?  Caucasian Canadian Alex Trebek.  I am a hardcore TCM fan.  But booking Alex Trebek to host a month-long movie salute to Africa was like something out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. What...LeVar Burton was unavailable?

As a reminder, I started my professional TV career as a weekly film critic on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee.  I was half of a film review team on a weekly half-hour show that aired on a different Milwaukee channel and I wrote reviews for a local publication.  That all got me contacted by PBS Chicago to come audition to be half of the new film review team when Siskel & Ebert left for Disney syndication.  That was in the early 80s, before I got and accepted a New York City TV offer in 1985.

From 1992 to 2000 when I worked on local and network TV news programs, I felt a color barrier when I wanted to review new movies and suggest classic films on the air.  Two remarks I heard from news show producers were -- "I don't think you have the skills to do it" and "Do you know anything about movies?"  I took it personally and thought it was just me.  That is..until I started sharing my experiences with other black, Latino and Asian film critics I saw at screenings in New York City.  They were frustrated too when it came to getting TV air time.  I proved to ABC News in 2000 that I did know something about movies.
I booked the job as the weekly entertainment editor on an ABC News live magazine show. I LOVED that job.  I'd love to do more entertainment contributor work for ABC.
Now that the network TV morning news shows are attached to movie studios, they don't have Friday film critics the way they did for decades.  There's no Gene Shalit on NBC, Joel Siegel on ABC, Gene Siskel on CBS.  Also, there's no syndicated Siskel & Ebert or Roger Ebert & Richard Roeper or Ben Mankiewicz & Ben Lyons or A.O. Scott & Michael Phillips.  All those couples were film review teams on national TV.  Some film critics are still seen on network news shows and on local newscasts in New York City.  The field is still predominantly white male.

Why are black people excluded from the mainstream new film and classic film conversation on TV?  And, in this movie season in which we're getting films like FENCES, MOONLIGHT and HIDDEN FIGURES (about the 3 African American women at NASA in the 1960s), why can't minority viewers look at a network or local TV news program and see a minority journalist review those films? When the network morning news programs have entertainment reporters and film critics in place minutes before the Oscar nominations are announced live, why is there never a black film critic/entertainment reporter present?

Why this lack-of-race/gender diversity?

As for Viola Davis, as I've mentioned in a short video on YouTube (, if she is nominated for FENCES, she will be the first black woman in history to have more than two Oscar nominations to her credit.

If you're on Twitter, here are some black, Latino, Asian film critics you should follow:  Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for film criticism when he wrote for The Boston Globe.  He's now with The New York Times.  @wesley_morris was the first African American to win the Pulitzer for film criticism.  Mike Sargent is a veteran film critic and a New York City radio host.  @Mikeonscreen has broken a color barrier as the first black male to be an occasional guest critic on the NY1 weekend film review show hosted by NY1 (New York 1) film critic Neil Rosen.  Mike hosted his own weekend film review interview show for two years on TV.  Every single show, he booked female critics like Zeba Blay (@zblay) and @RaqiyahMays. There's Julian Roman (@realjulianroman) and Jack Rico (@JackRicofficial). NPR station KPCC in Southern California has a Friday afternoon hour-long film review show called "FilmWeek."  It's a great show with different guest critics every Friday at noon Pacific Time.  Two excellent gents frequently heard on the show are Tim Cogshell (@CinemaInMind) and Justin Chang, film critic for The Los Angeles Times (@JustinCChang).

There needs to be diversity and equal opportunities in the film arts and in the discussion and criticism of the film arts.  Those folks on Twitter can add fresh insight and observations to the discussion.

FENCES starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis opens Christmas Day.


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