By Mike Downing
I went to see the Fences movie during the Christmas holiday, starring Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose, with Russell Hornsby (Lyons), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory), and Saniyya Sidney (Raynell).
I enjoyed it very much, as did the members of my group. As you might expect, after playing Troy on Broadway, Denzel shows a great familiarity and sensitivity to Wilson’s work…the characters, the language, the personal and interpersonal struggles, and the essential humanity, along with a full appreciation of the fact that this work is, first and foremost, a play.
What I mean by that last point is that while Denzel was clearly attempting to make the best movie he could make, he didn’t want to co-opt the essential nature of the original text, which is, in fact, a stage play and turn it into a Hollywood movie, with too much slickness. Since seeing the movie, I’ve read reviews that–not inaccurately–indicate that the movie is, occasionally, “stagey.” Sure. At times. However, it is important to remember that at least part of the sacred goal here is to commit Wilson’s work faithfully to film while keeping in mind the fact that Wilson was not a movie or TV scriptwriter; he was a playwright (and a poet before that). His plays are, therefore, living poems taken to the stage.
Consider Wilson’s stage directions from Fences and how they do not necessarily lend themselves to the rapid-sequence cuts and wide array of settings that are common in Hollywood movies of today.
From the play, Fences:
The setting is the yard which fronts the only entrance to the Maxson household, an ancient two-story brick house set back off a small alley in a big-city neighborhood. The entrance to the house is gained by two or three steps leading to a wooden porch badly in need of paint.
A relatively recent addition to the house and running its full width, the porch lacks congruence. It is a sturdy porch with a flat roof. One or two chairs of dubious value sit at one end where the kitchen window opens onto the porch. An old fashioned icebox stands silent guard at the opposite end.
The yard is a small dirt yard, partially fenced (except during the last scene), with a wooden sawhorse, a pile of lumber, and other fence-building equipment off to the side. Opposite is a tree from which hangs a ball made of rags. A baseball bat leans against the tree. Two oil drums serve as garbage receptacles and sit near the house at right to complete the setting.
Pardon the pun, but do you see how “fenced in” Denzel is in terms of setting? As written by Wilson, the entire action of the play takes place in a back yard in Pittsburgh. Taking that into account, I think Denzel did a nice job of taking the audience inside the Maxson house (all three floors), onto the street in front of the house, rambling along behind the garbage truck, into the bar where Troy and Bono see one another near the end, and into a grand building downtown, where Troy faces those in power.
Wilson was also particularly sensitive about the question of who would eventually direct the movie versions of his plays because, as he said, the movie versions are “forever.” I would guess that Denzel was keenly aware of Wilson’s position on this issue. Denzel had a fine line to walk in terms of making the movie come alive, while simultaneously remaining faithful to Wilson’s original script. I think he did a great job, all things considered.
Another of Wilson’s great strengths is his ability to create memorable characters, and the actors in the film version step nicely into the shoes of those characters. Denzel was great, appearing in every scene (until the end), but it was Viola Davis who brought a tear to my eye. Her intelligent and emotional portrayal of Rose was something that will stick with me forever. The character is one of Wilson’s most powerful and memorable women. And Mykelti Williamson nailed the difficult role of Gabriel.
One of the things I liked most was the fact that Troy is portrayed as fully human. This is central to the play. It would be easy to fall into the trap of depicting Troy as another “angry black man.” If that happened, the movie would not work. Wilson is not interested in an ideological screed. Instead, he is interested in representing the many facets of the (black) human condition.
In fact, when you read his work, you see that he always offers another perspective…and another, and another. That’s among his greatest gifts. So, even as he writes his own form of agitprop, Wilson’s work is not exclusively ideological propaganda. He always keeps the wheel turning.
Therefore, it is essential to make Troy human. He clearly loves his sons, despite his outward actions toward them. And he surely loves Rose, despite his betrayal. He is man in conflict with himself, and we come to more fully understand his humanity when we understand how he was treated by his father in the incident with Joe Canewell’s daughter and the life that he was forced to assume from that point forward.
In order for the play and the movie to work as a tragedy, and it is clearly a tragedy, Troy’s humanity must be present and, in fact, dominant. He cannot be portrayed in simple stereotype or the work falls flat. Troy is mostly kind, deeply flawed, and entirely human.
Finally, in terms of Denzel’s faithfulness to the original text, I think it’s essential to point out the importance of preserving all of Wilson’s original language. As mentioned above, Wilson’s plays can be viewed as poems come to life, and for a director to move too far away from the actual words in an effort to make a blockbuster movie would not be in line with Denzel’s goals of preserving Wilson’s work (and words) for future generations while allowing the work stand, essentially, on its own. I believe the course that Denzel set was the best strategy.