If it wasn’t for Denzel Washington, August Wilson’s Fences may never have made it from stage to the screen. It wasn’t so much because of marquee-value star power, though that certainly helps; it was because of choice of director.
Playwright Wilson insisted on a black director for his film adaptation, but the project and choice of names to helm the project never materialized. Then, in 2010, a Broadway revival of the original 1987 production cast Denzel Washington as the play’s lead, Troy, with Viola Davis as his wife, both of whom won a Tony for their roles. It was once Washington showed interest in not only recreating his character for a film but also to direct that things fell into place. Followers of both the play and of August Wilson’s work in general will not be disappointed. Fences the film is as fine an adaptation of a stage production as you would want, and both Washington and Davis are quite magnificent.
Playwright Tony Kushner adapted and re-shaped Wilson’s original script – August Wilson passed away in 2005 – though curiously the film’s credits list only Wilson as writer. Between Kushner’s adaptation and Washington’s direction, the play’s singular location of Troy’s back yard behind his brown-stained, brick-row house, opens naturally to other areas throughout the film. At the opening, when trash collector Troy Maxson (Washington) and his friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) are discussing their job and the issue of why there are no black drivers behind the wheel of the garbage trucks, the conversation takes place not in the back yard of Troy’s house but on the back of a moving truck as it makes its way through the streets of 1950’s Pittsburgh. It’s Friday afternoon, payday, and the two men are heading home.
The play never mentioned the location, but through references and nods to nearby landmarks, plus a nod to beloved Pittsburgh baseball player Roberto Clemente, you were always aware. With the film, the setting is obvious. In the distant background from the city’s Hill District, courtesy of some seamless CGI, elements of downtown fifties Pittsburgh can easily be viewed, including the tall smoke stacks of the steel mills, continually spewing its clouds of black smoke into the air.
In his younger years, Troy served time in prison, having committed an accidental murder during a robbery. It was there he practiced baseball, and by all accounts was a potentially great player, but the color barrier was firmly in place, and Troy never received the break he felt he deserved in Major League Baseball. He now lives with his wife Rose (Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) working as a trash collector, convinced that the unfair advantages of white folk over black is why his dreams of being a professional player, as with many unfulfilled dreams in Troy’s often self-inflicted, embattled life, never materialized. No one can tell him any different. He never lets them.
Opening the settings from a singular, theatrical set design to other areas of the district creates a surprisingly richer texture to the overall feel of Troy’s intimate story. Rather than changing a location for the sake of making it seem less a play than a cinematic experience, here things come across as something more natural than you might expect. The camera follows characters throughout the house, Troy wakes up in a cold sweat in his bedroom, his early exchange with his psychologically damaged younger brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) is done in full view of neighbors in the middle of the road in the front of the house, and there’s a brief moment in a downtown, head office when Troy has to attend a meeting in the Commissioner’s office. Plus, and perhaps the most effective of all, where in the play, the issue of time passing was simply a fade out of one scene and opening months later in another, the film carries us through that period with a montage of shots illustrating summer turning into winter while Troy is either building his fence or driving the garbage truck – he is the first black to get the job – accompanied by the haunting rendition of Sammy Cahn’s Day by Day sung by jazz great Jim Scott, billed as Little Jimmy Scott.
But while the setting is successfully expanded, the story’s theatrical origins are never in doubt. Characters are verbose in the way theatre demands; through great writing, their voices are successfully individual while they speak within the confines of their culture and their education. What is said is always potently clear, while powerfully delivered by an outstanding cast. Davis’s searing, tearful monolog to her husband is emotionally shattering.
The Troy of Wilson’s play is no different from the film. Not only can the man rarely see the reality of his life, he refuses to, blocking any and all reasonable advice and believing entirely in himself and what his heart tells him is right. But when those beliefs come from a source so ill-informed, what he says, the decisions he makes, his belligerency and the actions he takes will always be wrong, and it’s not just Troy but everyone around him that becomes affected. Building his fence is something more than simply tidying the backyard. Some people build fences to keep people out. Some build them to keep people in. And some build them to keep the grim reaper and the hounds of hell at bay. Like all the decisions of his life, Troy will succeed in none.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 138 Minutes Overall rating: 9 (out of 10)