There will always be debate when a play or musical is adapted for film. What seemed like a powerhouse story on a small stage may lose steam on the big screen. Despite its star power and award nominations, 2014’s August Osage County, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, took in less than $40 million at the domestic box office. This season’s play-to-film offering, Fences, is positioned to do better, having raked in more than $32 million after opening in wide release on Christmas Day.
There’s been much anticipation over this film, adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Wilson, who died in 2005, thwarted previous efforts, holding out for an African-American director. Enter Denzel Washington, who had starred in a 2010 Broadway revival, which, like the film was also produced by Scott Rudin. (Rudin is one of a handful of people who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar.) With Washington as director and star, filming began in April in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the working-class neighborhood where Wilson grew up.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denzel Washington, and Jovan Adepo
Denzel’s Troy Maxson and his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are sanitation workers, hanging off the back of the truck, wondering why only white men are used as drivers. Troy has registered a complaint with his superiors, a move that could get him fired. Instead, management honors his request and makes him a driver, although that move will lead to a separation from Bono, one of the few people who manages to keep Troy grounded.
Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson
On the surface, Troy seems content. He has a job, a home, and a wife, Rose (Viola Davis), he says he loves. But as he sits in the back yard drinking, first with Bono and later with his older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his story turns out to be much darker. As an adolescent, he killed a man in a robbery and spent time in prison. (That was where he met Bono.) After being released, he played in the Negro Baseball League and still hoped for a career in the majors. He continues to blame racism rather than his age for never advancing in the sport. And when his younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is being scouted by college football teams, he refuses to meet with the recruiter or sign the necessary papers. While he justifies his stand by telling Cory that football, too, is racist, he seethes with jealousy that his son might succeed where he failed. Relations with his older son are no better. An aspiring musician, Lyons often turns up on Friday, payday, to borrow money from Troy, but what he really wants is his father’s attention. Instead, Troy refuses to go to the club to see Lyons play and continually disparages his career choice.
Troy frequently shouts that he’s the boss and the house Rose and Corey live in is his, something that’s not quite true. Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), has a medal plate in his head, the result of a war injury. Gabe received $3,000 from the government for his mental impairment, which Troy used to buy the home. Although Gabe moved out, he lives nearby but spends most of his time wandering around the neighborhood, a tarnished trumpet tied around his neck.
While Troy thinks of himself as the head of the family, the one holding everything together is Rose. She puts up with his drinking and his ill-conceived plan to build a fence around the house. In Troy’s mind, the fence is more than just a way to enclose his property. Mentally, he’s hounded by the Grim Reaper and believes that the wooden barrier will keep evil at bay.
Washington opens up the film somewhat, with a few scenes shot in the street and in a bar. But for the most part, the action happens in Troy’s house and the backyard. Within that small space, the drama feels even more intense, brought home with close ups showing the emotions on the faces of the actors. While this is the story of an African-American working family, the themes resonate across socio-economic lines. Dreams die hard and often there is collateral damage.
Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo
Washington, in virtually every scene, has never been better. This is a dialogue heavy film and Washington alternates between delivering some lines like poetry, others like a diatribe. His Troy is not a sympathetic character, yet, at times, we feel sympathy for him, the result of Washington’s visceral performance. Troy is his own worst enemy, and as he builds his fence, this world closes in on him.
The real star of the film, however, is Davis. This actress seems to be at the top of her game no matter what she does. She continues to wow critics and fans with her role as Professor Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. No doubt, her star power will be one reason Fences does well at the box office. Her Rose is one for the ages, a performance that will be called out again and again. Watching Davis’ face as she registers the magnitude of Troy’s betrayal is painful to watch. She makes a difficult choice, one that has less to do with forgiving Troy and more to do with stopping others from suffering. It’s an heroic gesture, one that too few would have the courage to make.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.