What’s in a poster? It might seem simple enough — photograph the stars in a flattering light, find an inoffensive font, call it a day and crack open a cold one — but ad executives don’t get paid what I assume is a million dollars an hour for nothing. (Everyone on Mad Men ended up so rich, and that was at 1968 rates!) Careful consideration from the designers makes each poster into a fully-analyzable text packed with unspoken meaning, and the new one-sheet for Denzel Washington’s upcoming drama Fences is no exception.


At a quick glance, the poster’s pretty straightforward. There are stars Washington and Viola Davis, photographed in a high-contrast black and white to evoke the period setting of the film, with Washington’s newsboy cap also conjuring the aesthetic of working-class 1950s Pittsburgh. But even beyond the subtle significance of the slightly-distressed title font, mimicking the chipped paint of a fence while symbolizing the been-through-a-lot quality of the central family, there’s more to note.

Washington and Davis both smile on the poster, and yet their expressions don’t telegraph happiness, exactly. It’s more like a grimace, a bending of the lips that obscures an emotion rather than communicating one. They’re putting on brave faces to cover up their hardships, both for their own sakes and the sake of their son. It’s a quiet reflection of the chief themes in the film and the play on which it’s based: hardship, dignity, stony-faced strength, and the defiant decision to be happy over all of it.

That, or a Paramount executive looked at three versions of the poster and said “that one.” Either way, look out for Fences on December 25.