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SAG Awards: ‘Hidden Figures,’ Denzel Washington Wins Provide Surprises, Keep the Season Interesting

It was already a politically-charged evening, but Taraji P. Henson put a cherry on top with her rousing acceptance speech on behalf of the ensemble for “Hidden Figures.”

Theodore Melfi’s film shocked with a win in the Screen Actors Guild’s top category Sunday night, beating out Oscar heavyweights like “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight” and adding a lot more gas to the tank with the 89th Academy Awards just under a month away. “La La Land” was not in the running, perceived more as a two-hander than an ensemble film, but this is quite the feather in the cap of a film that has a lot to say about putting divisions aside and working toward common good.

Boy does that ring loud and clear right now.

Could “Hidden Figures” be an Oscar threat? I think you’ll see a concerted effort to get it there now, 14 daunting nominations for the musical everyone loves be damned. There is a pretty incredible narrative to build on here. And if “La La Land” has ever had a weakness, it’s that it might be perceived as more effervescent than “important.”

(But no, I’m not predicting anything but “La La Land” to win best picture. I’m not crazy.)

Meanwhile, Denzel Washington made a huge splash by nabbing the lead actor prize for “Fences.” After Casey Affleck dominated the circuit winning honor after honor, SAG-AFTRA provided a much-needed reminder that industry voters often see things differently than the critics. The last time the Academy went a different way in this category, George W. Bush was still in his first term as president: Johnny Depp won for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” in 2004, while “Mystic River” star Sean Penn went on to claim the Oscar.

This shift injects a healthy dose of uncertainty into the lead actor race. Washington’s work in the film is right up there with his best and he could absolutely be on pace to join history by becoming just the seventh actor to win three Oscars. It would push him into the legendary status shared by only Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. But he would also make history by becoming the first actor of color to win three Academy Awards.

But a few caveats: Washington had never been awarded by SAG-AFTRA, and the guild’s membership is truly vast compared to the Academy’s. It should make for an interesting phase two, nevertheless.

The rest of the film prizes went according to script. Though speaking of history, SAG-AFTRA gave three of its awards to actors of color for just the second time ever, as Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viola Davis (“Fences”) joined Washington by winning in the supporting categories. (In 2007, Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson each won prizes.) That, coupled with the “Hidden Figures” victory, made it a special night indeed.

And not to present it as an afterthought, but Emma Stone predictably won the lead actress trophy for “La La Land,” solidifying her status as the frontrunner in that category. Though it’s worth pointing out that she’s been completely outpaced by Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) and Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) in the precursors.

With that, we have the first weekend of industry honors behind us. “La La Land” has come on strong with wins from the American Cinema Editors, Producers Guild and SAG-AFTRA. “Arrival” was honored by ACE. “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” got their SAG-AFTRA love. Next weekend, the Directors Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers weigh in.

And the beat goes on this season…

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