“My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.”
– August Wilson, interview in The Believer, November 2004
*I saw Fences on Sunday – 25 December 2016.
If you ever need proof as to how institutional racism is imbedded into the world of art, look no further than the use of Black American patois. Our slang continuously sets the tone for what’s considered “cool” in the US – nay, the world – but it only gets recognition once White people adopt it. In a perfect world, E-40 would get more recognition for his contributions to the national vernacular than Quentin Tarantino ever did by using the word “nigger” as a punctuation.
In fact, a perfect world would recognize the dialogue of August Wilson as being just as important – if not more so – than those of Tarantino and David Mamet. Few other authors so accurately captured the rhythm, cadence, and comfort of Black American voices. Through his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, he painted a painfully intimate portrait of the Black experience through the 20th century. But just as Octavia E. Butler’s contributions to science fiction have been forgotten, so too have Wilson’s contributions to theatre.
His 1985 Pultizer-winning play Fences was nearly made into a film after its successful Broadway run, using a screenplay by the author himself. It ultimately failed to materialize due to Wilson’s insistence that the film have a Black director. None of his works have gotten big screen adaptations until now. Using the Wilson screenplay (mostly – more on that below) and a Black director in Denzel Washington, this quintessentially American story has finally been captured on film.
And it was well worth the wait.
If there’s one thing you can say about Troy Maxson (Washington), it’s that he’s a survivor. He’s survived a rough childhood, daily racism, and the burden of caring for his family to make life for himself. He may not be the successful ball player he could have been, but the life he’s created with his wife Rose Lee (Viola Davis) is a happy one. Mostly. The combined circumstances of a possible job advancement and his son Cory’s athletic potential plant a resentment in Troy based on not having become the success he should have been. No longer content with his everyday routine, Troy begins taking small steps that will have drastic repercussions for he and his family.
It’s a damn shame that Wilson himself didn’t live to see this film. Knowing that he passed away in 2005, one can only speculate the playwright – who described himself as “not a big movie person” – would have reacted to the final product. For those of us who revere his work, this is (almost) better than we could have ever asked for. Whereas some film adaptations of plays tend to highlight the play’s shortcomings (August: Osage County), lose something in translation (Les Misérables), or both – in addition to being released too late to ride the play’s popularity – (Rent), a piece like Fences has the timeless appeal of Death of a Salesman, to which it’s often compared.
As a director, Washington makes great use of both himself and his fellow cast mates from the 2010 revival of the play. I’m often wary of actors who direct themselves, as it tends to scream “vanity project”. Thankfully, Washington’s directorial choices have wisely kept the focus off of him alone, even when the frame does just that. His portrayal of Troy is layered in a way Washington has rarely been onscreen. I can’t imagine any other director getting a better performance out of him, even frequent collaborator Spike Lee.
But if any one member of the across-the-board-excellent cast deserves praise, it’s Viola Davis. Just as Naomie Harris in the recent Moonlight, Davis takes what could have been an overwrought performance (can you imagine Tyler Perry directing this film?) and injects it with a beating human heart that you can feel through the screen. Rose Lee is neither “mammy” caricature nor Hotep straw-woman. She’s a living, breathing human being who struggles to maintain her composure in light of the curveball life has thrown her. And also like Naomie Harris, if Davis’ name doesn’t show up during nominations, you’ll know the game is rigged.
Seeing and hearing how well the entire cast “sings” Wilson’s words, I’d be remiss to not mention the words that likely aren’t Wilson’s. Although the screenplay is solely credited to Wilson, it’s no secret that Washington retained the services of another Pulitzer-winning playwright when adapting the screenplay: Tony Kushner. As the film went into production, I wrote an entire article for SF Theater Pub about what it could potentially mean. So as to not repeat that article here, let’s just say I was worried about such a distinctive White writer attempting to adapt such an equally distinctive Black writer.
If you know the play, it would appear that whatever changes were made were for staging purposes – the words are clearly all Wilson’s. If I had to guess, I’d say that Kushner is responsible for the slight drag that occurs during the film’s final act. As shown with the scripts for Munich and Lincoln, Kushner’s screenplays tend to go on longer than they should. One could say the same for his stage plays, but those are his own pieces and there’s always a reason for his extending those story. The one flaw keeping me from giving this film a flawless grade is that the final act could have used some pruning, be it in the script or the editing bay.
But that is definitely the only flaw against it.
The play Fences was a labor of love for August Wilson, and an equal amount of love was put into its film adaptation. I hope this film will lead more people to seek out his work – hopefully live productions – and I also hope further film adaptations will be produced with this level of care and talent. This is what Wilson deserves. This is what we all deserve.