A great film version of a great play is a rare thing. More often than not, the alchemy that results in success on stage resists translation to the screen, and film history is replete with examples of movie stars who scoop up plum stage roles and end up making forgettable flicks. Denzel Washington’s film of August Wilson’s Fences is that rare thing. As director and actor, he’s done everything right.
He began by playing the role of Troy Maxson on Broadway in 2010, under the direction of Kenny Leon. That was so smart. Movie-making, movie acting is a different process than play-making, stage acting. It requires a different (if overlapping) skill set. But in this case, Washington’s experience of steeping himself in the play the way one does with an eight-show-a-week, multi-week run teed up his film to be a successful conversion of play to film.
That Broadway run was cast impeccably, and Washington has kept almost all of those actors for the film. (Only the roles of the younger children have been re-cast.)
Of course that also means that praise for the terrific acting in the film ought to be shared with Kenny Leon, who here is uncredited. It also means that these characters display fully-fleshed inner lives: when your eye strays from the speaker in any given scene, you are treated to uncommonly authentic, fully-explored ensemble acting.
Washington’s other smart move was to keep the bulk of the play’s text intact, and to embrace, rather than fight, the fact that he is basically presenting, not reimagining, a stage play. Sure, there are some scenes that are “opened up” into a location other than the play’s backyard setting. But for the most part, the sequence of the action and the text of the scenes haven’t been altered.
It’s maddening, and not uncommon, to see a favorite play hacked gracelessly in order to make room for dumb show scenes of people walking or driving around, because film is a visual medium. However, working from a screenplay that Wilson wrote before his untimely death in 2005, Washington is obviously devoted to Wilson’s words. He also doesn’t stray too far in another direction, by over-using close-ups, another frequent blunder when filming a play. (Viz: John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh.)
Fences is, as most readers will know, the 1950s entry in August Wilson’s Decalogue — his series of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century, each taking place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. It was Wilson’s breakthrough play. It wasn’t his first to be done on Broadway (that was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), but it was the straight play hit of the 1987 season, winning a Tony and a Pulitzer and it established Wilson as a singular theatrical voice to which attention must be paid.
Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson. Troy had been a star baseball player in the Negro leagues; now in his 50s, he works for for the city collecting garbage. The play examines the gap between his potential and his limited options in Jim Crow-era America, as well as his relationships, especially with his wife Rose and younger son Cory.
I don’t know this play as well as some of Wilson’s other plays. My only previous experience of it was a production at Arena Stage, shortly after the Broadway run. I remember thinking that it seemed focused more on the domestic aspects, as opposed to the sociological aspects, of Troy’s story. As a result, I found it less satisfying than other plays in the Decalogue.
Either I misjudged the play, or Washington (and Leon) have accessed aspects of it that the Arena production left less fully explored. I had thought that the father-son relationship was central. Here it is only one of the things that throw into relief the thwarted ambitions of Troy. Troy seems to be a more traditionally tragic figure and less the closed, emotionally unavailable “Bad Dad” who was my salient impression of Yaphet Kotto at Arena (and also of James Earl Jones in the brief snippet from that year’s Tony broadcast, which showcased a father/son slap-down scene).
Hearing the play this week, I felt as if it had much greater resonance than I remembered. I made favorable comparisons in my mind to Death of a Salesman, another play about the limitations faced by a striver, and the complicated dynamic when ambition conveys awkwardly to the next generation. But Fences doesn’t feel in any way derivative of Salesman; rather, it feels complementary, as another distinctly great American play. If there are echoes, it is like the similarities we recognize in the flaws of Greek tragic heroes, like Oedipus and Medea.
Washington accesses the life, the joi-de-vivre, and the charm that emanates from Troy and defines him for his friends and family. There’s a lovely monologue in the last scene — some years after the first — in which Troy is described by his wife Rose, and she highlights those qualities. Memories of Washington in the first scene of the film flood back, and it’s crystal clear — we know who and what Rose is describing.
That said, Washington does not at all white-wash the uglier aspects of Troy. So rounded is his performance that the clashing characteristics, which alternately draw us to and repel us from Troy, are all of a piece, are all of the same man.
Washington is an actor who can surprise you in unexpected ways — you hear a line and think, “That moment is so real, and I’ve never seen an actor capture that before, or give a line that conversational twist before.” The drinking scenes that book-end the play are a master class in finely-observed behavior — choices that avoid cliché, but are absolutely authentic. Washington, and all the actors age very subtly, yet entirely credibly. Again, this is another dividend from having done the play on-stage, I’m sure.
I’m about 1,000 words into this review, and I haven’t yet mentioned Viola Davis. Well, in fact, I have, if not by name. She’s basically who I was thinking of when I wrote earlier about the manifold satisfactions of watching actors who aren’t the immediate focus. Talk about that overused metaphor, which I here employ for the second time, “a master class in acting.” I can imagine watching each scene in the film over and over: now I’m watching only Denzel; now I’m watching only Viola; now I’m watching only Stephen McKinley Henderson.
One fun aspect of seeing a Wilson play is that the audiences tend to be more reactive than more traditionally staid theatre audiences, and the same is true of the film. I saw Fences at a multiplex in Western VA — not the place you’d expect to share it with people whose experiences are close to those of the characters. Davis’s Rose, in the latter half of the film, has her showcase scenes. It’s impossible to describe them; they must be experienced. What I can describe are the gasps they elicited. No — gasps are quieter. Let’s just say that I don’t think it’s possible for any random group of people to watch her in this film without empathy being audibly expressed.
The afore-mentioned Stephen McKinley Henderson is one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson on-stage. I had the immense pleasure of seeing him in the New York premiere of Jitney. (His star turn in Between Riverside and Crazy, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, proved that his range extends impressively beyond Wilson; he earned an Obie for that.)
The performances of so many glorious stage actors have been, or will be, lost to the ages. What a secular blessing that his performance as Troy’s colleague and friend Bono has been captured on film, so all who didn’t have the pleasure of seeing him in person can experience this master interpreter of this master dramatist. (You can also catch him in another awards-season darling, Manchester by the Sea.)
In fact, thinking back over Henderson’s performance, I’m reminded how much texture can be found in this play. The friendship between Troy and Bono isn’t central, by any means, but it is rich. We see them drift apart over the years. They no longer work together; Troy’s life focuses elsewhere; Bono has an attitude about Troy’s choices. Wilson doesn’t provide an easy explanation for the drift, but we can see in it echoes of relationships in our own lives that have waned over time.
Russell Hornsby is Lyons, Troy’s elder son. Washington and he have deftly calibrated the performance for the camera; it’s subtle work. Lyons is a very different man than his father, and Troy’s relationship is different with the second son who still lives at home. Lyons moves in a different world than Troy, but faces similar limitations to his aspirations. When those become apparent in a late scene, it’s powerful and poignant.
There’s almost always, in Wilson, a character who Wilson has described as a “spectacle character”, and in Fences it is Troy’s brother Gabriel, who has been left mentally compromised after a war injury. These characters generally live on the margins of society, not operating fully or communicating easily with the world around them. At the same time, they often access aspects of history, provide pieces of wisdom, or understand the essence of relationships more clearly than the “normal” characters.
It is Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, however, who most resists translation to film. There’s something about theatre, and the fact that it’s occurring in the same room that you are in, with (usually) an obvious border at which point the world of the play, however realistically presented, can be seen morphing into the real world of the seats populated by the audience. If Fences is an indication, those “spectacle” characters function more easily and more powerfully on-stage than on film.
Up against that particular challenge, it is Williamson’s performance that feels most theatrical, rather than cinematic. It’s a performance that has obviously been crafted with skill, love, and compassion, and, in the film’s final moments, it makes the tricky ending work. Nevertheless, if there is one of the film’s portrayals that I think would have operated more powerfully on-stage, it is his.
Jovan Adepo is a newcomer to the cast, as the younger son Cory. I remember the Cory relationship as being more central to the play when I saw it on-stage. I’m not sure whether cuts were made that have altered my earlier perception, or whether I’m just responding more to the full play than I did previously, or whether Adepo somehow gets a little lost in the ensemble in which he is the odd man out. When he’s on-screen, he is very good; but I tended not to think about him when he wasn’t, in the way I thought about the other characters.
The other newcomer is Saniyya Sidney, who is only in the last scene. Hers is a wonderfully fresh, lovely presence, and we immediately embrace and care about her. (She’s also in another awards-season film, Hidden Figures.)
A shout-out to the Production Designer, David Gropman, who has recreated time and place convincingly and with great care. The pair of smokestacks belching black smoke into the air alone summon mid-century Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the rest of the design is meticulous.
Go see Fences. Go ten minutes late, so you miss the previews of coming attractions, and the series of explosions that so often these days define the experience of filmgoing. Then settle in for a powerful film about people — people who will populate your memory long after the final credits, who will inform you about a very specific time and place in our recent history, and who will resonate with you emotionally, as only characters of great literature can.