Shortly before his death in 2005 at the age of 60, the playwright August Wilson completed the tenth dramatic work in his monumental Pittsburgh Cycle, his unparalleled survey of black American life across the twentieth century. The stories are loosely related, mostly set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and each explores a different decade in the lives of black Americans. Wilson himself wrote the screenplay for his 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning stage production, Fences, and, as he required of all his works, stipulated that a black director must be hired for the project. Production on the film stalled for decades, and only now, with Denzel Washington both starring and directing, a Fences motion picture finally appears eleven years after Wilson’s death.
The story extends over several years in the mid-1950s, mostly in the backyard of Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro League baseball star and ex-convict now in middle age, supporting his family as a garbage man. Troy’s household includes his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and frequent visits from Troy’s grown son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), mentally damaged younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Though the narrative has a few twists and turns that add to the dramatic tension, the primary mode is thick, complex characterization developed through scintillating dialogue. Wilson’s ear for the speech patterns of working class, black Pittsburghers in the 1950s is remarkable, and the script pulls us deeply into the lives of these characters and their debates about their changing fortunes during the early stages of the civil rights movement.
Troy is a fascinating, contradictory figure—boastful and insecure, hilarious and seething, devoted and unfaithful, amorous and cool. His Hellenic name signals Wilson’s intent to construct this fatally flawed semi-hero in the mode of Greek Tragedy, where Troy’s best and worst selves clash and threaten to destroy him and the people he loves. That Troy is both likable and in some ways awful seems a vital part of the political gesture Wilson makes. Similar to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)—a novel that sought to rescue Nigeria’s Igbo culture from racist caricature not through idealization but through complex, richly detailed humanization—Fences portrays these black American lives not as flawless but as intensely real. If the original production in 1983 was partly a response to Reagan-era attempts to idealize the 1950s, this new film version necessarily becomes a conversation piece with Black Lives Matter and post-Obama America. It remains a fresh and bold work by suggesting that these lives matter not because they are perfect but because they are fully human: surging with love, jealousy, desire, commitment, and failure.
Fences is about many things, but very important among them is parenting, and, more specifically, fatherhood. Troy is a father to two sons—Lyons, whom we first meet at age 34, and Cory, who is 17. Troy’s relationship with both boys involves a significant amount of badgering, by turns desiring that their lives become better than his and then growing envious at their superior opportunities. The world Troy knew as a young man militated against him, and only his determination, athleticism, and streetwise intellect allowed his survival into middle age—toughened, scarred, but alive. Each son struggles in his own way with their father’s large shadow. Cory wants a football scholarship to attend college, a dream Troy sabotages in the (partly) altruistic belief that a paying job in a supermarket is more realistic for young black men. Lyons inhabits a life outside the middle-class aspirations of his father, playing guitar in seedy clubs and flirting with petty crime. The fourteen years that separate Troy’s sons reveal their differing opportunities for stable livelihoods, and a key aspect of Troy’s tragedy is his inability to accept the career choices his children pursue--and the fact that they live in a world less hostile than he had experienced. Significantly, Wilson never allows his audience to feel settled about whether success is a matter of individual agency or social configuration.
The moral center of the film is Rose, Troy’s strong, sexy, humorous wife and the mother of Cory. Viola Davis portrays Rose with passion, fury, and steely resolve, reprising her role from the 2010 Broadway revival. In the pivotal scene where Rose confronts Troy about his infidelity, Davis sustains an eruption of method-acting pathos, her face going liquid with pain and disbelief. The complexity and fire in her performance are demonstrably Oscar-worthy and, indeed, garnered Davis the award for Best Supporting Actress. Through much of the film, she carries the family, quietly sacrificing herself to its stability and to Troy’s often overbearing presence. At one key point, she tells Troy that she never wanted her family to be like how she was raised, where every sibling had a different father and no one could share completely with their parents. That she ended up with a family like this anyway grieves her deeply, but her force of will ensures that at least her unbroken marriage will become a base for her kids.
At a structural and thematic level, Fences grapples with Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, the 1949 play that exposed the fallacy of the American Dream through a past-his-prime salesman clinging to the tenuous strands of his glorious youth and the conflict this produces in his struggling sons. Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, bears a crucial resemblance to Wilson’s Rose, right down to the powerful finales in both works, where each woman stands defiantly and gives blessing over her husband’s failed life. But unlike Miller, Wilson twists his storyline in a way that saves Troy’s heroism. Rather than using his protagonist’s failure like Miller did as a focused critique of the society that crushed him, Wilson shows us the strained yet still admirable mettle of his central character. Social forces have undeniably been hard on Troy, and at times he has been his own worst enemy. But through all of this, Rose’s final pronouncement to her children—who are rightly skeptical about their father’s virtue—is that he exemplifies someone who “gave the best of what was in himself” to the people in his life. Utterly flawed yet persistently striving to offer all the good that he had—this is Troy’s legacy.
Much of the greatness of the film version of Fences is already the greatness of the play. Film critics have tended to applaud the stirring performances and the virtuosity of Wilson’s original masterpiece. Less thrilling is the translation of this fine play into cinema, which is a notoriously difficult task for any director. Washington does a thoroughly adequate job with a largely insurmountable problem. We might think that theatre and film are similar media, more similar at least than film and fiction. After all, they share many aesthetic elements, such as sets, costumes, and actors. But the dramatic style Wilson embraces is largely aural, much like his conventional American forebears, Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. Wilson’s script is deliciously, ebulliently talky, and its more natural second home would be radio rather than the distinctly visual medium of film. With Fences, we are a long way from Hitchcock’s celebration of a “pure cinema” that tells its story as much as possible through pictures alone—a widely accepted secular doctrine of sola pictura. Washington adds a few visual flourishes, such as rides in Troy and Bono’s garbage truck and some attention-grabbing camera work during Troy’s most emotional moments. Overall, though, the editing remains invisible, and the camera simply captures the speeches and discussions of the characters. The force of Fences on film is slightly diminished compared to Fences the play, simply because it lacks the immediacy that only the live theatre can bring. I am glad, however, that more viewers have access to the story through this film.
It is hard to imagine anyone but Denzel Washington doing this production. Not only did he star alongside Viola Davis in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, but he is also his generation’s Sidney Poitier, the premier ambassador of black masculinity for mainstream American cinema. Unlike Poitier, though, who is sometimes criticized for being too polite and too “acceptable,” Washington roils with sexual energy and verbal explosiveness, and he is thoroughly convincing as the physically, emotionally, and intellectually imposing Troy. However, without taking anything away from Washington’s nuanced performance, this version of Fences exposes the persistent, much discussed problem of Hollywood’s lack of diversity among directors, producers, and even major stars. Washington is superb, but why is he the only person available to create this film at this level? The Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite mobilized a furor around the 2016 Academy Awards that had (once again) snubbed many worthy actors and films made by and for people of color. The 2017 lineup of nominees fared somewhat better with films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences getting Best Picture nods. The stunning conclusion to the ceremony, with Moonlight receiving the award after a mistaken announcement that La La Land had won, gives some kind of vindication to the outcry for more diversity. (One can only imagine the outrage if the mistake had gone the other way and Moonlight had been announced first, only to be stripped in favor of a very white, self-adoring, musical love note to Hollywood.)
It remains to be seen whether the 2017 awards are merely a token nod or a changing tide that might usher in more black talent and exploration of diverse lives that matter. Whatever its struggles to be a purely cinematic experience, Fences is an important enshrining of a great American play and perhaps an invitation for more high-profile works by and about black people, as well as broader recognition of August Wilson’s extraordinary achievement.
Charles Andrews is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University.