Anyone who knows me personally or has been following my blog, knows that I'm a huge reader. However, what many people might not know, is my first love is plays. I love the theater, a love that came in elementary school and actually came first through reading plays, second by the experience of seeing them performed. As a weekly ritual, my mom would take me to our local Crown Books (remember them?) and I would head straight to the "Drama" section, selecting a new play to add to bookshelf. Admittedly, a lot of the content was too mature for me and much of it went over my head, but I got swept up in the dialogue. August Wilson was one of those playwrights on my shelf.
Fast forward to high school, eleventh grade english, where we spent what seemed like an entire semester on just one play, Wilson's Fences. The time spent analyzing just one piece of work, killed any love that I had for play. Fences is one play in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, surely we could have read more. It was frustrating.
Fast Forward again to my twenties, when I had the pleasure of becoming a season ticket holder at the Mark Taper Forum. Forget Disneyland, the Mark Taper Forum is the most magical place that I know. Theatre is magic, and the Mark Taper Forum is one of my favorite places on earth. Because I was young and money was tight, I always bought passes for the preview nights and in the cheapest seats. However, you know who happened to sit behind me, not once, but on several occasions? August Wilson. Wow, right? Wilson came to the previews of Jitney, King Hedley ll, Gem of The Ocean, and Radio Golf. I kept the same seats year to year and he sat right behind me, close enough to touch. I was too nervous to tell him how much I admire his work, but I did get a nod and a hello, which was awesome. Seeing his words performed, washed away any lingering grumpiness that I had for spending an entire semester on Fences, and now, many years later, I'm thrilled to see the movie adaptation.
PLOT - Set in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh during the 1950's, Fences follows the Maxson family. Middle-aged Troy ( Denzel Washington) is a former baseball player who could not regain the opportunities of his youth, after spending time in jail. It's debatable whether Troy's talent went to waste because of his age upon his release from prison, or due to race discrimination, but either way, it has made Troy extremely bitter, and it informs his entire world view, one that he presses onto the rest of his family. Troy's wife, Rose (Viola Davis), puts all of her hope into her marriage and into her son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), encouraging his dreams of playing football. Will Troy's destructive behavior destroy his family?
LIKE- Wilson is a masterful storyteller and in Fences, story is king. Although there are some concessions to this being a film, such as montage scenes, a majority of the action still takes place at the Maxson home and in their backyard. The focus is not on sets, costumes or camera tricks, it's on dialogue and character. Wilson passed away before he could complete the screenplay, but I was thrilled to learn that my all-time favorite playwright, Tony Kushner, was enlisted to finish the script. Kushner takes a producer credit in the film, allowing Wilson to shine as the solo writing credit. It has been a long time since I've read Fences, but I don't believe that much was changed from stage to screenplay.
Like all best stories, Fences has a lot of grey areas. For example, Troy is neither a good or bad guy. Admittedly, his attitude and actions make him a type of villain through much of the story, however, he can also be charming and soft. Troy makes me think of my own father, who died when I was a child, but by all accounts was a very complicated man. I relate to Cory and his conflicting emotions towards his father, especially with the message at the end of the film, that Troy loved the best way he knew how. This message is even a grey area. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but it has kept me thinking days after watching Fences. There is another grey area between determining how much of Troy's life has been decided by factors out of his control, such as race and the era in which he was born, vs his own actions. Troy's beliefs on his own misfortune are forced on to his children, even when they feel that they have a chance at opportunities that their parent's didn't. Troy can't see it, but some of what is happening is a classic struggle that impacts every generation, where the world has changed and the same rules don't apply exactly the same way to the newest generation, creating a struggle. Rose can see and understand the generation gap, but she struggles to communicate this with Troy. Fences is filled with her failed attempts at getting through to him.
Second to the writing, are the power-house performances, led by Washington and Davis. Washington is nearly unrecognizable as Troy, a role that he played on Broadway. However, it is Davis, as Rose, his long-suffering wife, that steals every scene. I'm not sure if it's because I'm older or because my first marriage was unhappy, but I connected with the character of Rose in a way that I had not previously. When her hopes and fierce love for her family are crushed, it's absolutely devastating. I liked how the end of the story shows that although her life has gone a different direction, her hope and love are still alive. There wasn't a dry-eye in the theatre during the climax of the film, and most of that is owning to Davis' raw performance. I can't imagine her not sweeping every award this season.
DISLIKE- Nothing. Whether you see the film or play version, Fences is a powerful story that should be seen.
RECOMMEND- Yes! I'm not sure that Fences is visually a movie that needs to be seen in cinemas, however, I think this is one to support while it's still in theaters. It's important to support it, to send a message that more films of this quality should be made. Also, it's the type of story that benefits by the communal energy of a cinema audience. It's this energy that always makes me choose the cinema, over watching a film at home.