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"To August Wilson With Love”: Fences Review

By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Kwanzaa Day, December 2016.

Sometimes a film compels such an emotionally visceral and intellectual experience that it reminds us how beautifully true artistic work and entertainment should and can meld together. Fences does just that thanks to the late great August Wilson -- playwright and screenplay author of the Paramount film adaptation of his play Fences, director Denzel Washington, and this year’s tour de force in ensemble acting with Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel), Stephen Henderson (Bono), Russell Hornsby (Lyons), and Jovan Adepo (Corey Maxson), and Saniyya Sidney (Raynell).

At the risk of giving those recently talked about too ‘white’ award shows even more attention, I will mention that the Golden Globes chose not to recognize the brilliance in Mr. Washington’s directorial approach to Fences, which was, in his words, to ‘get out of the way’.  Whether the annual over-hyped award season follows the Globes and decides to choose between Mr. Washington’s worthy performance of Troy Maxson and his worthy direction instead of honoring both as they should, it does not lessen the achievement.

In that deceptively simple summation of his approach to directing Fences, Mr. Washington treats Wilson’s work reverently and wisely, knowing and understanding intimately the treasure in Wilson’s writing, the bluesy tragicomedy, his masterful lyrical ear for the signifying, vernacular voices of African American people, and his deft touch at creating layered, generational and historical conflict, compelling characters, and weighty stories.

All of the above are on display in the Pulitzer prize winning Fences  – a larger than the screen black father, Troy,  his restless almost a man son Corey, straining against his father’s dominance and the impact of history, race, class, and gender politics on the father's psyche and parenting, a devoted, magnanimous housewife (Rose), simmering under the surface of that seemingly placid traditional domesticity, an African griot-Greek drama seer-like, second sight gifted, mentally ill brother, Gabriel, a dreamy, slightly wayward, Jazz artist first son (Lyons),  and a best friend (Bono) – too perfect as a funny, wise, supportive foil to be called a sidekick.

In the translation of Fences from the stage to screen, Washington stays faithful to the wealth that Wilson created with the cinematography -- close-ups, transitions, blurred shots, and stripped down, and realistic settings supporting the star features – story, writing, and character performances.

The screen adaptation retains something precious and very pivotal to the theatrical experience – the language and character driven story demands that viewers hear and revel in its richness and beauty. In other words, it begs viewers to see, listen, and hear. Viewers who have never read or seen an August Wilson play or checked him out in written or oral interviews may come to the film not prepared for how the work will invite them to stay still and listen so they can luxuriate in the tapestry of color, sound, and words spilling out philosophical profundity in the mixed jazz and blues notes of the dialogue.  

Mr. Washington obviously takes advantage of his years long familiarity with Wilson, his award winning stage interpretation of the main character, and the relationships between the stellar actors who have all, save for young Adepo and Sidney, interpreted these characters on stage previously; their regard for what Wilson created on the page and the opportunity to bring it to life is evident in every performance.

In a cast of standout performances, Ms. Davis, letting  all the ugly and the beautiful hang gut deep out in this cinematic reprisal of her Tony award winning role as Rose Maxson is a wonder that lingers in the mind’s eye and reverberates in the ear.  That’s what the profound, if an actor achieves it, does. Davis’s turn as the loyal wife betrayed by her husband who comes to recognize her complicity in minimizing her selfhood for his will still reverberate though Fences is set in the 1950s.

Women are certainly in August Wilson’s dramas, mostly as essential secondary characters, as points of black men’s focus, discussion, love, distress and support, and as historically and symbolically hugely important agents (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for example).  Among these, Rose Maxson is quite memorable and not merely for being the lead female character and wife to the larger-than-life major character, but because this role is problematized some and spoken aloud to and in Davis’s portrayal, ripped raw and brought painfully to the fore.

It’s absurd that August Wilson would ever have had to offer any considerable commentary explaining why he focused on the African American experience in his dramas and whether or not in doing so, it risked universal [read mainstream] appeal.  Imagine Tennessee Williams or Thorton Wilder or Arthur Miller having to engage interviewer questions about focusing on  white people or questioning about whether their plays spoke across perceived racial and cultural boundaries.

The film adaptation of Fences  will put several key notes into a glaring spotlight and the first is how utterly absurd and insulting that kind of questioning to Wilson and about his work really was. It will also highlight how an industry which owes a lot to American theatre and its playwrights has failed to plume the rich canvas of August Wilson stories, and not been all over getting more of Wilson’s American century cycle (ten plays) to the big screen. The last major movie treatment of his work occurred on television with 1995’s The Piano Lesson starring Wilson stage play veteran Charles S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard.  

With Fences, Mr. Washington and his formidable cast demonstrate something a lot of us knew but still too many do not know but hopefully may now: Wilson is a great maestro of distilling the complicated and simple, humanly universal yet distinctive souls of black folk into our vernacular genius.


S​tephane Dunn is a writer and professor and the director of the  Morehouse College Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies Program​ (CTEMS). Her ​publications include the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois) and a number of articles in mediums such as Ebony.com, The Atlantic, The Root.com, Bright Lights Film journal, and others.  Follow her on Twitter at twitter @DrStephaneDunn and www.stephanedunn.com.    

"Fences": A Review

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