There was a great deal of anticipation for the movie Fences to be released. One reason is that it stars two of Hollywood’s top actors: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Another is that it is based on a play by the legendary August Wilson, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh. The film is based and was shot here mainly in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson envisioned it. Fences includes such cultural touchstones as shots of downtown Pittsburgh with smoke coming out of several buildings’ chimneys, a Clark Bar sign, mentions of the Pirates, Bobby Clemente, The Crawford Grill, Mellon Mortgage, and a bottle of Iron City beer.
Fences was written by August Wilson in 1983. It’s set in the 1950s and is the sixth play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh (or Century) Cycle in which each play occurs in a different decade of the Twentieth Century and features a compelling story of African American life during that period.
Wilson was a student of dialogue and would sit in local restaurants and coffee shops listening to conversations of others close by. He would jot down notes about what was said and in what manner it was said. These nuanced observations provided a strong backbone of dialogue in all of his plays. Fences opened on Broadway in 1987 and had a strong run. It garnered all the top awards for that year including the Tony Award for Best Play, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
Before his death in 2005 Wilson completed the screenplay for Fences (Tony Kushner, another Pulitzer-winning playwright, made additional refinements to the script in 2016). Wilson wanted the films of this and his other plays to be directed by an African American, because he believed that it would give the person the proper understanding and context. The versatile Washington, in a “60 Minutes” interview with Bill Whitaker, said he had committed to producing nine of Wilson’s Cycle for HBO and one, Fences, as a stand-alone film. He said these would be great projects for the fourth quarter of his life and some of his most important work, adding that he demanded that everyone give their best to Fences.
Strong Characters, Strong Cast
Washington’s inspiration and dedication is evident from the dual roles he played in the movie, both directing and acting. As Troy Maxson, a frustrated Pittsburgh garbage man beset by personal, economic, racial, and family pressures, some of his own making, he gives a superb performance.
Maxson is a former felon and Negro League baseball player who feels that he was racially discriminated against in his prime or else he would have played in the major leagues. Maxson works as a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh. At that time blacks would ride on the back of the garbage truck and had the arduous job of lifting the garbage cans and emptying them into the open back of the truck while a white man would sit inside and drive. Maxson, being frustrated with this discrimination, brought it up to his boss. He then got word to go to Pittsburgh’s city hall and talk to the commissioner. Maxson was afraid that he might be fired, but instead was allowed to be a driver.
He lives with his homemaker wife Rose Maxson, played powerfully by Viola Davis, and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), a good kid who plays football at Schenley High School and is sought after by a college recruiter. Throughout the film Troy is building a fence around the backyard of the house and wants Cory to assist more with it. The fence is a metaphor for several things in the movie.
Cory’s quitting his job at the A&P supermarket (putting the job on hold, as he says) in order to play football during the season creates major tension between him and his father. Troy doesn’t want Cory to experience the same racial discrimination he faced in sports and wants Cory to set his sights on getting a good job and not playing college football.
Rose is a loving wife and mother and a friend to all including Troy’s son from another marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who stops by every payday to borrow $10 from his dad, and Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s younger brother who suffered a life-changing war injury. Rose is also the manager of the family who gets Troy’s pay envelope every payday and distributes some spending cash back to Troy and to the frequently outstretched hand of musician son Lyons.
(Jim) Bono, played aptly by Stephen McKinley Henderson, is a fellow worker on the garbage truck until Troy becomes a driver. Bono is a good friend who feels that Troy is starting to go off track and tells him so in a kindly manner. Through conversations with Bono much of Troy’s backstory is revealed. Saniyya Sidney as Raynell Maxson provides nice emotional support in the powerful climax of the film. All actors excel in their roles.
Washington gives a dynamic performance as Troy. He’s a fun and friendly person on good days, a resentful and mean person on bad days. Davis and Washington, who played Rose and Troy in the Broadway revival of Fences in 2010, do a delicious dance with one another until pressures build and everything comes undone. Davis holds her own against Washington’s forceful performance.
Both Davis and Washington are classically trained actors who can do action dramas as well as more dialogue-heavy work. Washington had a starring role in the 1993 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Davis has a previous Pittsburgh connection in that she appeared in three movies by producer/director/screenwriter Steven Soderbergh, who grew up in Shadyside.
Transporting the Play’s Power to the Screen
Some people may say that when you take a great play that is performed live and turn it into a movie, it loses some of its magic. I don’t believe that factors in very much with Fences. One reason is that the screenplay was written by the author of the play, Wilson; another is Washington’s brilliant direction.
Although this is mainly a dialogue movie, Washington’s camera direction amplifies the emotions by many very smooth, hardly noticeable zoom-ins on close-ups of Troy and Rose when they are delivering their lines in intense scenes. Other shots, include those taken from behind the opposing actor’s outer shoulder and a slightly revolving shot during a group scene in the back yard, give a sense of immediacy. The camera shots are done in such a way as not to show off, but to enhance the emotions felt from the actors’ delivery of their lines without stepping on the dialogue.
Washington is not afraid to show himself and Davis in an unflattering way. Washington in his undershorts and T-shirt, contorted in a painful pose after receiving some distressing news, reveals a small pot belly. Davis in her most intense scene, when she is yelling and crying at Troy, has slobber and mucus from her nose during much of the exchange.
Although this movie takes place in the ‘50s and involves a black family it is highly relatable to people of any race today, with family and economic pressures and a government often corrupt and unresponsive to individuals’ needs.
Fences also provides some nice slice-of-life moments of the 1950s with kids playing stickball in the street, church life, classic cars, people sitting and conversing on porches, plastic furniture covers, and fashions of the day. In seeing Fences you’ll also learn of a song about a dog named Blue and “you got to take the crookeds with the straights.” This movie is an amazing emotional ride and deserves to be seen and enjoyed for the work of art that it is.
Rick Handler is the executive editor of Entertainment Central and enjoys a good movie.