The most famous play of August Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle, Fences is alive to the oratorical vitality of private African-American theater. The characters are those unnoticed in mainstream Caucasian society, living as garbage truck drivers, hustlers, low-income homemakers, and damaged war veterans brushed in and out of hospital wards. These characters quietly bolster our American infrastructure, working unglamorous jobs, yet Wilson imbues them with the heft of tragedy that’s normally reserved for white protagonists. Fences has the empathy to suggest that a failed black athlete and ex-con has as much right to be Willy Loman as Willy Loman. In his own backyard, his realm, this fallen man is reborn as a master dramatist, spinning stories of the history of his life with bitterly ribald vigor, infecting his family with his greatness as well as his poison.
Artists taking on Wilson in the 21st century have quite a bit with which to grapple. As our society turns its back on even flimsy illusions of progression, looking over its shoulder toward an even more oppressive-than-usual vision of corporate-enabled white supremacy (which, unknown to many white voters, fucks them as well as the people they hope to oppress), art like Fences will continue to be contextually informed with the freight and responsibility of resonance. The temptation is to allow “importance” to trump vitality, which is the true source of art’s profundity. Fences is a scathing study of how white society destroys a black man’s sense of self and promise, yet that man is allowed to be more than a symbol for black America. He’s a man first and most of all, and he’s flawed, tortured, and quite culpable in his downfall. Wilson understands that cultural symbolism runs the risk of condescension—of reducing a culture through inadvertent pity.
As a director, Denzel Washington is aware of these nuances, mounting a film adaptation of Fences that tries to honor the macro of the play’s meaning as well as the true manna of its being: the micro of romantic longing, self-loathing, and nostalgia. Washington’s non-direction of the play is so quaint that it nearly does a loop-de-loop into the realm of the avant-garde; the rarefied, sentimentalized, polished-looking 1950s-era Pittsburgh of the film suggests nothing more than a series of theatrical backdrops.
This studied quaintness is evocative in fits and starts. The film’s opening promisingly follows Troy (Washington) and Bono (Stephen Henderson) as they ride through Pittsburgh on the back of a garbage truck, making their rounds emptying the trash, talking of Troy’s recent brush with sanitation authorities after he asks about the city’s lack of black drivers. The camera follows these men in long shots that emphasize the theatricality of Wilson’s dialogue, allowing it and the actors to do the formal heavy lifting. This unapologetically talky tempo is initially exhilarating for its surreal artiness (the assertion that dialogue is inherently antithetical to cinema is a myth), particularly when Washington continues to follow the characters as they get off work and gradually mosey over to Troy’s backyard. Their walking pointedly suggesting a transition into an alternate realm, a daydream of past simplicity that’s cut through with the inescapable reproach of systemic despair.
This opening confluence of cinema and theater represents the only formal decision that Washington makes as a filmmaker, as he operates from the belief that the play and his cast are enough—that any further interpretation is either blasphemous or superfluous. This isn’t to suggest that Washington should “open up” Wilson for cinema, but that he should be willing to complement his performers with imagery that bolsters and affirms the emotions they conjure. Washington provides literal-minded “coverage,” sometimes breaking the rhythm of a monologue to cut to a perfunctory reaction shot of another actor. Watching the film, one might wonder what a daring African-American director might have done with this cast, such as Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins, artists intensely aware of the physicality of actors.
Yet, Washington’s belief in Wilson’s play and his cast as means onto themselves is almost justified anyway, when applied to this play and this cast. For all its limitations of imagination, this is still a film that gives Washington, Henderson, Viola Davis, Russel Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson room to work through dialogue of astonishing poetic insight, exploring the internal and external traps that are particular to each member of Troy’s family. Washington is a timid director, but he hasn’t been this ferociously present as an actor in a while, as one can feel his exhilaration to push himself beyond the safe zone of his prodigious, nearly unparalleled magnetism. Occasionally, one senses Washington pulling back into the cave of his own celebrity; at times, this Troy could be more pathetic, more of a diminished everyman. But Washington is a poet of anger, of coiled, self-annihilating righteousness. His delivery of one of the play’s greatest monologues—in which Troy waxes on the pragmatic needlessness of liking his son while truly offering a sublimated proclamation of love—is one of the most moving and searing moments of the actor’s career.
One feels Washington’s exhilaration to be working with Davis, as she’s the rare performer who can match his intensity, who can outfox his big gestures with grace notes that resound throughout the film like fine musical instruments in an echo chamber. Playing Troy’s second wife, Rose, Davis subtly lowers her voice, suggesting a life spent making quick points in between the flamboyant oscillations of loud men, investing each line with punchy, plaintive urgency.
Washington and Davis understand that Rose is the heart of Fences, as she’s a portrait of servitude as uncelebrated bravery. Like many of us, Troy revels in the existential pomposity of his disappointment with himself: He may be black, but at least he enjoys the favored viewpoint of maleness. Raising their children, morally bolstering her husband, controlling the money he earns, keeping the house clean, Rose has no time for such operatic grandeur. She gets the job done, and Davis’s every gesture suggests a pyrrhic kind of self-actualization: Rose is ironically realized by denying herself.
In the film’s climactic scene, Rose is finally allowed to fully account for herself and assume the center stage, correcting the self-pity of another man in a long line of self-pitying men, and Davis wrings every wrinkle of subtext out of Wilson’s writing, her performance structured as a series of mini emotional explosions within a grander crescendo, perfectly converging micro heartbreak and macro consciousness. In the end, Washington’s Fences is a weird mix of the banal and the extraordinary, and particularly because of Davis’s unmistakably great performance, the film can’t be dismissed.