August Wilson was likely one of the most unanimously revered playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century and he also lived in my home state for about ten years, a fact that was more than enough for the local English teachers to adopt him as a hometown hero despite the fact that every one of his plays was set elsewhere. As such I’m somewhat familiar with his work, but for whatever reason I was never assigned to read his most famous work “Fences,” perhaps because those English teachers all wanted to explore the deep cuts rather than the play that everyone would theoretically find without their help. “Fences” was often viewed as being sort of a black response to “Death of a Salesman” which makes some sense structurally and thematically even if it is a little reductive. It was something of a sensation when premiered on Broadway in the late eighties it won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and also won a Tony for its original star James Earl Jones. Needless to say this is material that has largely been canonized and is not to be adapted lightly. The play was however successfully revived in 2010 with a cast which included Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and now that revival has been adapted into a feature film with Washington himself directing.
The film is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and focuses on an average working class African American family called the Maxsons. The patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has been working as a garbage man for decades and has raised a teenage son named Cory (Jovan Adepo) along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis). As the film begins things are looking fairly decent for the family; Troy is lobbying to get a promotion that has historically not been available to African Americans, Cory is proving to be a talented football player, and the family is soon going to have a nice picket fence to spruce up their home. However there are cracks in this nice veneer that will soon threaten to implode this tight family dynamic and they first show themselves when it’s revealed that Cory has put his job at a corner store on hold so that he can attend football practice, a move that would seem irresponsible until you realize that his skill is such that he’s already attracted the attention of a college scout and could get a scholarship from this skill. Troy, played Negro League baseball in his youth and experienced the frustration of having never advanced beyond that because of his race and as such doesn’t see that as any kind of a valid hope for his son’s future and stubbornly refuses to allow the son to continue this pursuit.
Given that this play has basically entered the cannon of American literature at this point it almost feels presumptuous to weigh in on any of this material in and of itself, but I do have a few reservations. The biggest is that I feel like the conflict that the play builds between the father and the son all through the first act sort of seems to be sort of pushed to the wayside in the second half in place of a different conflict with his wife which I will not reveal. That second conflict is of course interesting as well but I would have liked to have seen how that tension over the son’s potential football career would have played out if the focus had stayed there. I also maybe could have lived without a sub-plot involving Troy’s brain damaged brother and I’ve also never been particularly fond of August Wilson’s occasional dabbling in magical realism as he does in the epilog here. Those quibbles having been aired, it is clear from this movie that this play does live up to its reputation and is clearly a very poignant character study about a flawed man trying to live up to the pressures and expectations of being a patriarch.
Of course with a film like this the question is really less a matter of how good the material is so much as how good the adaptation was, and the answer to that almost entirely depends on how you feel about stage plays being turned into films with minimal attempt to conceal the theatrical origins of the text. The movie is certainly doing nothing to hide the fact that it’s based on a play. A few scenes certainly appear to have been relocated to other locations but most of the action takes place in the back yard of the family’s house and the dialogue certainly leans more towards long speeches than any movie written directly for the screen is likely to indulge in. Of course the film has the benefit of something that the stagings of the play at your local repertory theater company don’t have: it has a world class cast anchored by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are both operating at the height of their abilities. Washing ton in particular is impressive here, albeit in a very certain kind of theatrical way. My one real reference point for this character is a Youtube video I found with a three-some minute clip of James Earl Jones doing the play’s signature “why don’t you like me” scene. Judging a Tony winning performance by a short clip like that is pretty stupid but what I noticed was that Jones’ take on the character seemed a lot more stern and withdrawn into himself. Washington by contrast seems to be playing the character a bit looser and lets you see a bit more of the character’s roguish past.
If there’s any reservations I have about Washington’s performance it’s that it doesn’t have a ton of internal range. Washington starts at about a 9 on the intensity range, moves to a 10 frequently, and occasionally pushes into an 11, but never goes much below a 9. Of course the material invites this and he probably shouldn’t have played it any other way, but it is not the kind of actively naturalistic acting that most modern filmmaking trades in. That can kind of be said about most of the movie as it is unapologetic in the fact that it’s speaking the language of theater rather than the language of cinema and one’s enjoyment of the movie is going to mostly be rooted in how one feels about that. Personally I think that does kind of diminish the movie, at least when you’re directly comparing it within the larger world of cinematic accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a lot of value for what it’s trying to be. I’m not someone who gets out to the theater very often for a variety of reasons and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there like me in this regard. I’m also not inclined to read plays like books and don’t have much of an interest in seeing filmed plays through Fathom events and the like. As such these stage-to-screen adaptations are often my only real way to experience great works of theater like this. So, for a play like “Fences” to be brought to the screen competently like this and with a cast like this is a pretty good thing any way you cut it.