The film “Fences” (released Christmas Day 2016) is based on the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and screenplay by the brilliant playwright August Wilson (1945-2005).
“Fences” is set in 1950’s Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) had been a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues in a time before Jackie Robinson. After serving time in prison he meets Rose (Viola Davis) who believes in him and devotes her life to their family: his older son Lyons from a previous relationship and their son, Cory.
The drama is timeless and the quiet visual cinematography does not seem to date the place or the power of broken dreams in lives led on the fumes of racism. “Fences” wisely employs most of the cast of its Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival. The actors’ familiarity with the characters translates into not only dizzying, heartbreaking performances but also the astonishing adaptation of their talent from theater to screen.
The transition from award-winning stage performances to equally worthy performances on film, the adjustment in acting techniques is astounding. Viola Davis on stage was so agitated, she looked like she was having a seizure as she gave her powerful soliloquy. On the silver screen, the camera caresses her face in a painful series of close-ups almost too devastating to watch as Viola Davis unforgettably expresses the way her husband has failed to see her for who she really is. When the camera finally pulls back (as we viewers also wish to pull back), she is perfectly still.
Denzel Washington is less physical as well in the film version. The psychology of his damaged character lies beneath the surface as the camera lingers on his charm–and his luminescent smile– smothering his dark side. We see why his wife Rose would fall in love with him—and stay in spite of his infidelity and abusive nature. Parts of “Fences” are almost unendurable for the tragic nature of each character. Rose loves him, but once he breaks not only her heart but the rest of the family she protects, she icily destroys him: “You are a womanless man”.
Fathers acting out their pain onto their children appear throughout literature and film, and this quiet catastrophe is a masterpiece. We are born into a family and our family is born into us. But this thought exemplifies Rose’s disbelief in the inevitability of this cycle. Rose represents hope.
August Wilson leaves the question open: When are we inheriting the sins of our parents and when do we move on? This is our legacy as humans. Can there be beauty and joy out of pain and suffering?
Note: Wilson wrote ten plays over two decades, portraying African-American life in Pittsburgh with a lyricism and poetry both Shakespearean in its conflicts and resonant of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in its scenes from a marriage and father-son conflict. Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” also comes to mind in its pioneering depiction of African American lives on the theatrical stage. Some of Wilson’s other plays will be adapted for television by HBO and his play “Jitney” will come to Broadway this spring.