Oscars: Will Barry Jenkins (‘Moonlight’) or Denzel Washington (‘Fences’) become first African American to win Best Director?

Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) or Denzel Washington (“Fences”) would make Oscar history this year as the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Director. In a year when diversity is front-and-center, it’s a distinct possibility that this barrier will finally be broken.

You can literally count on one hand the number of black filmmakers nominated at the Oscars. First came John Singleton for “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), who holds the distinction of being both the first African American and, at just 24-years-old, the youngest director ever nominated. Next came Lee Daniels for “Precious” (2009), the first African American to ever helm a Best Picture nominee. Finally, there was Brit Steve McQueen, who couldn’t win even when his film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), took the top prize (history was made nonetheless that year by Alfonso Cuaron [“Gravity”], the first Mexican to win for directing). Even if both Washington and Jenkins make it in, you’d still only need one hand to count the number of nominees, lest you’re missing a couple of digits.

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“Moonlight” has been the little-movie-that-could this Oscar season, and Jenkins, whose one previous film was the micro-budget “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008), has become a breakout star. Thus far he’s won the National Board of Review, New York, LA, and Chicago Film Critics Awards for directing, to name but a few. He’s a strong contender at the Independent Spirit Awards and at the Golden Globes, where he goes head-to-head with Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), Tom Ford (“Nocturnal Animals”), Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”), and  Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”). The film could take the Globe for Best Film – Drama, and should Jenkins pull an upset over Oscar frontrunner Chazelle, expect the tide to change quickly in his favor.

“Fences,” meanwhile, just opened to rave reviews and a strong box office showing in limited release. This big screen adaptation of August Wilson‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is the third directorial outing for Washington, following “Antwone Fisher” (2002) and “The Great Debaters” (2007). While many are predicting him to join a short list of three-time acting Oscar victors (he previously won Supporting for “Glory” [1989] and Lead for “Training Day” [2001]), he could just as easily join an equally exclusive list of stars-turned-filmmakers who triumphed in Best Director.

Dish ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Fences’ with Hollywood insiders in our notorious forums

Thus far the only place Jenkins and Washington have competed against each other was at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, where they lost to Chazelle. One thing that could work in either of their favor would be a SAG Ensemble win for “Fences” or “Moonlight,” since Best Picture front-runner “La La Land” failed to make the cut in that very important precursor. The Producers, Directors, and Writers Guilds have yet to announce their nominees, but likewise victories there could signal a major shift in the race.

Even if “La La Land” remains the film to beat for Best Picture, a split in Best Director could still happen. In recent years under the preferential ballot, what was once a rare occurrence has now become much more commonplace. So even if voters love “La La Land” more than “Fences” or “Moonlight,” just as many may be more impressed by the directorial achievements of Jenkins or Washington than that of Chazelle.

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Perhaps the best thing going for Jenkins or Washington is the backlash from #Oscarssowhite. Two years in a row, the acting categories have been completely devoid of non-white nominees, the lone spark of diversity represented in back-to-back Best Director winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman” in 2014 and “The Revenant” in 2015). This year, with not only “Moonlight” and “Fences” but “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” and “Lion” offering a plethora of not only non-white nominees but potential winners, it seems appropriate that one more barrier be broken this Oscar season.

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