I’m not sure if it’s the best news or the worst that no one to date has turned a play written by the late August Wilson into a movie for the big screen (I make that distinction because there was a made-for-television adaptation of The Piano Lesson 20 years ago). But now, Denzel Washington has committed to overseeing the production of Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle for HBO, and perhaps Wilson will finally be recognized by the pop-culture masses for what he truly is—one of the greatest American playwrights in history, period.
Washington began his commitment to Wilson’s works by starring in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Fences on Broadway in 2010, for which the actor also won a Tony for Best Lead Actor, along with his co-star Viola Davis winning Best Actress and the show winning Best Revival. Almost the entire cast of the play has reunited for the film adaptation, which Washington has made his third effort as a director (following Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and it’s as astonishing a display of searing acting and minimalist staging as I’ve ever witnessed.
To say the film feels “stagey,”especially in its opening hour or so is no insult. The entire play takes place in the backyard of the lead character’s home in a segregated neighborhood in 1950s-era Pittsburgh, so anytime Washington brings us inside the home or to the front steps of the house feels like he’s expanding this small universe exponentially. Troy Maxson (Washington) and his best buddy Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are both garbage men in the city, and there has been a bit of an commotion on the job regarding Troy because he dared to voice his concern that only white men drive the trucks while black men do all the lifting. This is not the only time Troy expresses such thoughts about equal opportunity (usually after a few after-work drinks with Bono in his backyard), having played baseball in the Negro Leagues better than just about any white player in the Majors.
Troy’s life has been a series of near misses and unexplored avenues, and as a result he has turned into a bit of a blowhard, content to make his point and teach his lessons rather than be liked by his family members, including his devoted wife Rose (Davis) and high school-aged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, from the HBO series “The Leftovers,” and the only major cast member not from the Broadway revival). It’s fascinating to watch the way Wilson’s words turn from conversational to emotional firestorm in the blink of an eye. And with each new exchange, we learn a little bit more about Troy’s past that helps explain the mental barriers he’s put up around his own existence.
Listening to the the prose is an active process in Wilson’s work. With a simple exchange, we learn how Troy and Rose first met, and we immediately begin to wonder why they didn’t have children until so much later. Then we discover that Troy was in jail for 15 years, making him one of the oldest players on his team and a much older father than he was to his oldest son (from another mother) Lyons, now a 30-something-year-old musician (played by Russell Hornsby) who occasionally drops by the house when he needs money. The most curious and challenging character in the family is that of Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a war veteran with brain damage caused by a combat injury. He’s loud and harmless but gets . delusional about what’s going on around him, with talk of seeing St. Peter and chasing hellhounds through the streets of the city with a horn strapped around his neck.
While Fences is essentially a series of conversations, there’s movement, drama, character development and tension at every turn. At various points in the story, people confront Troy about his belief structure and behavior, and he bobs and weaves through it all, using baseball metaphors as a defense mechanism. And there comes a certain point where Troy is forced to make a startling revelation (that is not the revelation we are expecting) to Rose that effectively turns Fences into as much (if not more) her story as his, and Davis assuredly steps up to become the emotional focal point of the universe.
The ever-shifting dynamic between Troy and Rose might be curious to some, but there was a time in history where you simply came home to the one you were married to, regardless of where you spent the rest of your day. That may seem old fashioned to some, but it helps us make sense of their willingness to always meet in the middle to work through difficult subjects, even if their resolutions are messy and open ended. In the end, Troy destroys every relationship he has simply because he feels like a failure to himself, a constant source of disappointment with untapped potential as far as the eye can see. Washington has always been the kind of actor who is so fun to watch be playful, but he counters that here with moments that are so painful, you almost want to turn away from the humiliation that Troy must be experiencing.
Quite simply, Fences is a frontrunner for the greatest display of acting you’ll see all year. But I hope people acknowledge the layers depths of the writing (Wilson actually wrote this screenplay before he died in 2005), which parcels out vital information about every character to maximize the raw emotional impact with such precision that you wish other screenwriters took the same care is developing drama and tension. Although Wilson’s goal was always to represent the African-American experience in America throughout the 20th century, there is also a universality to his work that crosses color lines and gets to the heart of flawed men in every shape and size. For this and many other reasons, Fences is one of the great films of the year.