“I have to confess that I’m not a big movie person,” August Wilson said during my interview with him in 2002. He had come to Kansas City to guide the Missouri Repertory Theater’s production of his play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “I don’t go to a lot of films,” he continued, “and I don’t know very much about the history of stage-to-film adaptations. But I have learned personally while working on the screenplay for Fences that adapting a play to film can be an exciting process.”
And now we have that screenplay and film of Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Fences (1987), eleven years after his death in 2005, directed and starring Denzel Washington in his third outing as director. It reunites him with Viola Davis from the Broadway revival (they both won Tonys). It’s a film of quiet desperation, charged by a few moments of angry outburst, of a man, Troy, beleaguered by life’s disappointments and frustrations, surrounded—one could say, fenced in—by a job as a trash collector, a long-suffering wife, Rose, a brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, two estranged sons, and unexpected news that a recent affair has produced a baby daughter. His only escape, it seems, are the local bar and cherished dreams of a long-vanished past as a star baseball player. As we see him decline from the brash rogue we see at the outset, to a self-pitying wreck at the end, he determines to build a fence of his own, one that protects him from the world at large, and one that defies for the moment the ever-impending Death. But as the poet says, what is he walling and what is he walling out? Washington and Davis give towering performances. Davis, in particular, invests Rose with a strength and vulnerability that provides the emotional throughline of the film.
Troy is the Everyman of August Wilson’s oeuvre. Critic John Lahr contends that “[Wilson’s] audience appeal almost single-handedly broke down the wall for other black artists, many of whom would not otherwise be working in the mainstream.” (John Lahr, “Been Here and Gone,” The New Yorker, 16 April 2001, p. 50). His plays examined the African American experience in this century, each one set in a different decade, beginning in the time period of 1911 with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and continuing with Fences, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney, and King Hedley II. They form what Lahr describes as a “fever chart of the trauma of slavery” (52). That bondage is to the course of history itself, as a character in Ma Rainey declares: “We’s the leftovers. The white man knows you just a leftover. ‘Cause he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don’t know that we been took and made history out of.”
In my interview with Wilson, he commented on the differences between writing for stage and screen.
“Certainly it is a different thing to write for the screen instead of the stage. The way I see it, the stage tells the story for the ear, and the screen for the eye. It was a matter of selecting images to tell the story. On stage, you can’t really control where the viewer’s eye goes; there’s a whole stage picture there, and the viewer can be looking anywhere. But with the camera, if you want the viewer to look at something in particular, you can put their eye there. Also, a film gives you the opportunity to take the viewer to different places. We can see Troy at work, driving the truck, hauling the garbage on his back. You can see him with Alberta, the woman with whom he’s having an affair (she remains offstage in the play). On the other hand, you don’t want to yield to the temptation to show everything, the stage teaches us that some things are better unseen. It’s a question of artistic choices. Do you do flashbacks of Troy playing baseball, of him in the penitentiary? And you can write the scene, maybe even shoot it; but if it’s wrong, you take it out. I’m seriously thinking about visualizing the baseball stuff. Haven’t written that, yet, but maybe.”Denzel Washington and his cast have wrought a faithful adaptation of Fences that serves the playright well. Sure, there are some “stagy” moments of back-story dialogue, reported action, and rather heavy-handed baseball metaphors; and the appearances of the brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, especially at the end, sit uneasily in the greater realism of the screen. But that’s August Wilson, take him or leave him.
And that’s, bless him, Denzel Washington, the same thoughtful and dedicated artist that I was privileged to meet and interview years ago on the occasion of appearing in Spike Lee’s MALCOLM X.