It’s about time that one of August Wilson’s theatrical plays made it to the screen.
It has happened now with “Fences,” directed by and starring Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a complicated man with a good and long-suffering wife, Rose, played by Viola Davis. Both actors won Tonys for the Broadway stage production of “Fences” in 2010.
Washington completely inhabits the central character, Troy Maxson, who calls to mind Willie Loman, King Lear and Terry Malloy (“I coulda been a contender” from “On the Waterfront.”)
Troy’s dream, a career in professional baseball, was frustrated because he aged out before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Of Troy’s many resentments and regrets, this one is the most raw.
He boasts of his Negro leagues career, batting home runs off Satchel Paige pitches. He still swings his bat at a baseball strung from a tree in his backyard. He peppers his speech with baseball metaphors, especially the one about three strikes.
Instead of baseball stardom, Troy has worked 18 years as a garbage collector, which he also resents. When he complains that the trash company has no black truck drivers, he is the first one to get such a job. This was an accomplishment in its day, the mid 1950s, but not the kind of enduring triumph a proud man like Troy would have wished. It also separates him from Bono, his genial coworker and very good friend.
Troy broods constantly on what might have been, and he cannot let go. When told that his 17-year-old son is a candidate for a college football scholarship, Troy effectively kills the opportunity, so absorbed is he with his own disappointment.
“How come you ain’t never liked me?” his hurt son asks, and Troy hurls back a hurtful answer that is mostly about Troy.
And on it goes from there.
August Wilson wrote the screenplay for “Fences,” which is based on his play of the same name. He found his voice in African American speech and poetry, and he sets his stories in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where he spent most of his youth.
By the time he began writing plays, he understood that milieu, as well as Shakespeare and the Iliad — why else would he name his troubled character Troy?
The result, called the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, is 10 plays about the African American experience, one per decade, for the period between 1900 and 2000.
All but one of the plays has been produced on Broadway, and there are occasional productions at regional theaters. But it is a bit sad, given the plays’ quality and distinct subject matter, that few American are acquainted with them.
In fact, Wilson was wary of film versions. When a studio optioned “Fences” in 1990, Wilson insisted on a black director. He acknowledged that the themes of his work were universal, but he was adamant that an honest presentation required life experience in African American culture. The project was shelved.
Wilson died in 2005, at age 60. Charles Isherwood’s thoughtful biography and analysis of Wilson’s work ran afterward in the New York Times. It’s worth a read.
Many years later, Wilson’s estate authorized Denzel Washington to direct films of Wilson’s plays. “Fences” is to be the first of many.
Theater v. Film
In some ways, I wish I had seen “Fences” in that 2010 theatrical version instead of this movie.
It seems likely that a the fence Troy was building would have been a more central element of the play and its themes — the barriers Troy has faced and the barriers he puts up between himself and those who love him. I’m also guessing that the play’s scenes began each Friday afternoon, when Troy dropped his paycheck on the kitchen table and spent time with his wife, their child and Bono, his coworker.
More to the point, a theater experience differs from a filmed one. When an on-stage Troy loses his temper in frequents outbursts, he would share his emotions with at least one other actor. In the film, Troy is talking to the camera.
Conveying deep emotion to a large audience requires some intensity to succeed; on camera it requires less. The camera closes in on the single actor and, in some ways, magnifies that intensity and its effect on a viewer.
Also, the movie runs to more than two hours. It uses the time well to tell its story, but an intermission, perhaps between the second and third acts, might allow members of a film audience to absorb what they have seen and to prepare themselves to watch how the plot elements already set in play will be resolved.
The film is very, very good and deserves a broad audience. But it is very intense.