August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences has officially opened as a feature film in theaters on Christmas Day. Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose Maxson) reprise their principal roles from the 2010 Broadway production of the play, which had its world premiere in 1985 at Yale Repertory Theatre, starring James Earl Jones, who would replay the role on Broadway in 1987; it won a Best Play Tony and Jones picked up a Best Actor in a Play Tony.
Fences is set in the 1950s Hill district of Pittsburgh, Ohio. The father Troy lives in a modest home with his wife Rose and son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who is in high-school and wants to play football. Troy is a sanitation employee working alongside his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Every Friday, Troy is visited by his 34-year old son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from an earlier relationship. Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) suffers from head injuries sustained during World War II. Until recently he lived with Troy and Rose. Troy has an overwhelming presence and bigger-than-life personality. He had been a gifted baseball player during a time when black players, having no opportunities due to segregation, were relegated to the Negro Leagues. Now things are changing but at 53, Troy is too old to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. His bitterness over this and his tragic childhood affects his family in ways that are crushing and just a breath away from being devastating.
Denzel Washington directs this film. But for an uncompromising playwright and doubtful producers, theater audiences might have seen Eddie Murphy producing and starring in some role in this film, guided by a white director. What difference does it make whether the director is white?
August Wilson believed it mattered a great deal. He refused to support the choice of a qualified director that was not black for his screenplay, keywords being “qualified” and “black.” Wilson strongly believed that it was important that the story of black people not be perpetually interpreted through a white lens. He believed a qualified black director could best understand and properly translate his gritty story about the 1950s black experience through this medium. Eddie Murphy bristled, Paramount Studios blinked, and the film did not happen during the 1990s. Subsequent attempts to produce a film failed. It seemed that this project might never materialize.
Spring forward 25 years later and it is announced that Denzel Washington would bring Fences to the screen for Paramount. Not only was Washington to direct Fences, but HBO agreed to produce the rest of the plays in Wilson’s 10-play cycle referred to both as The Pittsburgh Cycle and The Century Cycle. (The order of films of the other plays has not been announced yet.)
It is probably fair to say this news was met with jubilation and anxiousness. Jubilation over the idea of seeing Wilson’s works translated through a medium that would make them more accessible to a larger audience. Anxiousness over whether such strong theater pieces should be translated through another medium at all, and whether in doing so, the theatricality would be lost or too diluted. Some wondered whether Washington was up to the task of directing and acting in Fences.
What theatrical inquiring minds most want to know is this: has the integrity of the story been Hollywood-ized, and has Washington’s performance been compromised because he is also directing?
The story of the screenplay is the story of the stage play because the playwright wrote both. Tony Kushner (the award-winning playwright of Angels in America) only helped to trim a little, not rewrite. These are August Wilson’s words.
As to the theatricality concern, the film feels very much like a stage play. This might be problematic for some film enthusiasts, but it will be a relief to theater people. This has been accomplished through location and setting, and camera shots and angles.
The original setting for the stage play is unchanged, unfolding in the backyard of a modest 1950s row house in Pittsburgh, Ohio. The backyard with porch during the 1950s was the place where histories were preserved and relationships nurtured. It was the black man’s country club and work space combined.
The closing shots create a Hollywood-gag moment, but otherwise the camera angles and shots are basic, mostly mid-shots and medium close-ups. Troy’s oversized ego is sometimes reinforced with low angle camera work. But this film is neither utilizing nor resting on innovative camera movements or exceptional cinematography. The script and the acting are shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for storytelling. There is no escape from what is happening among these characters. These are directorial decisions and it is clear that Washington’s approach was to avoid intrusion into the actors’ work. There is no glitz, no forced adrenaline rushes. There are the characters living out loud even in their silences, on screen.
Regarding the actors’ performances, Washington and Davis scrape all of the innards out of Troy and Rose Maxson and leave them on the porch where the viewer cannot avoid. There is nothing small about their portrayals. Sure, it helps that the camera captures the hundreds of character facial movements in response to lines heard within scenes, but that amplifies an already solid and stage-like conversation unfolding in front of an audience.
Washington appears to have deepened his relationship with Troy Maxson since his Broadway performance, which is a good thing. Washington, who has spent more of his career in front of the camera instead of a live audience, has a couple of eye-rolling Hollywoodish acting choices, but those do not dominate nor do they override the totality of his performance. For all of the bigness that is Troy, it is in the small gestural work where Washington lays open the character’s vulnerability. That small work in scenes with Rose is beautiful.
Rose Maxson actually becomes the protagonist during the second act or the last half of the story. Viola Davis’ work is demanding, insistent and uncompromising. She is an elite actress, not unlike Rose Maxson in that she just keeps showing up and doing phenomenally superior work in project after project. Rose is the conscience of the piece and Davis skewers us with it.
Gabe is a sympathetic character but not to be pitied. Williamson crafts him such that an audience can love him and understand his essentiality to Troy and to the story.
Fences was the third of 10 plays written as part of August Wilson’s play cycle documenting the black experience in America by decade throughout the 20th century; Fences, set in 1957, is the 1950s entry.
Stage, film—it’s not necessarily a competition. At the screening I saw, a patron was overheard saying “I didn’t know this was a play!” Maybe she will want to know more about August Wilson. Maybe she will learn about the other plays, and that they are being produced by HBO. Maybe she will watch them. And just maybe (fingers crossed) the next time she hears about a stage production of an August Wilson play, she will go to a theater to see it. That is one of the things film can do.
» Look for a video interview with Jovan Adepo coming on TheaterJones soon.