Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 December 2016

Fences and Putting Theatre Onscreen

For me, Fences had two strikes against it before I got there. While I love many of Wilson's other plays (Two Trains, Seven Guitars, Piano Lesson) and obviously love the project of the Century Cycle itself, I've always found Fences a fairly clunky play (I don't care if it did win a Pulitzer). Fences, too, is one of Wilson's more realist dramas: his early plays like Fences, Ma Rainey and Jitney just don't have the bold theatricality of some of the later plays (Gem, Joe Turner, Hedley).

I was skeptical, too, of what I saw as Denzel Washington's leisurely, self-indulgent way of playing Fences' protagonist Troy Maxson. I've seen video of Washington onstage, and he took his time with that role. There was a YouTube video going around for awhile that compared the original Troy, James Earl Jones, with Washington scene for scene, and Jones's work is tighter, stronger, and more about the character than the actor; Washington played the part onstage like everyone was there to see him.

[Side note: I almost went to an early screening of this in Florida in early December, but I had stood in line for 90 minutes and then knew I was going to get stuck in the front row of the theatre, so I left without watching the movie. I figured my annoyance with the situation would disallow my enjoyment of the movie, and with the two strikes already against Fences in my head, I figured I shouldn't prejudice myself against this movie.]

But strikes or no strikes, Fences is superb. In fact, I surprised myself by loving it as much as I did. The film's central character, Troy Maxson, is not a likable man. He's difficult and frustrated and frequently ungenerous, and when he started in on his Wilsonian monologues, I felt my impatience rise in my chest, but almost immediately, Denzel Washington's brilliant performance won me over. His work is, honestly, masterful. He is impossible not to love. He is berating his son and causing his wife pain, but he's an extraordinary character. Lovable isn't the right word, but he is compelling, powerful, insistent on his own position in the world, and filled with grief – endless mourning, even – of having been forced to live during Jim Crow. The film takes place in Pittsburgh's Hill District, of course, where all but one of the plays in the Century Cycle are set, but Jim Crow was alive and well in the North, as well, and racist union practices, racist major league baseball restrictions, and racist policing practices have all restricted Troy's life in inexorable ways.

What is so genius about Wilson's work here – and this is on display perfectly in Washington's film – is that even though the play itself (and this is why he chooses realism as his form) is really about how racist circumstances and situations have shaped these men and women, his characters are beautiful, fully draw human beings who attempt to live out their dreams. What I mean to say is that Wilson is primarily interested in a kind of materialist analysis of the effects of racism on the lives of black people in the North, but his characterization is so superb that he also manages beautiful historical portraits of black folkways in the great tradition of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Sterling Brown.

Mr. Hornsby
Just a bit more to say. First off, this is the play made into a film. Washington keeps nearly everything from the stage version. It occasionally feels like a play, but mostly it doesn't. For the most part it feels dynamic and moves nicely. Fences looks less like a play than the most recent Woody Allen movie, for example. This is all due to Washington's directorial point of view, which is studied and smart and much much better than directorial efforts by actors that we have seen in the past (remember The Good Soldier?). Washington is a very good film director. He does not have a relaxed or direct gaze. The work is interesting and moves much more fluidly than films like Doubt and Proof and Into the Woods and that one where Michael Fassbender played Jung to Viggo Mortensen's Freud.

The acting is top notch all around. Washington is superb. Davis is excellent. Russell Hornsby is fantastic. Stephen McKinley Henderson is great. It's a very, very good cast. Expect Oscar nominations for Washington and Davis for sure. (Davis is committing category fraud by running as supporting in what is unquestionably a lead performance.) But this will also be nominated for Best Picture, and, if they're not out of their minds, Best Director, as well.