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Denzel Washington brings August Wilson's Fences to the big screen
The great American playwright August Wilson was a double Pulitzer-Prize winning author whose work spoke specifically to the African American struggle throughout the 20th century in America. Known primarily for his Pittsburgh or Century Cycle these ten plays came to define his literary mind and ability to capture an American consciousness that continues to work on stage to this day. Nine of these ten plays are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an African American neighbourhood where his characters live, work and in some cases drift between different plays, each aiming to further the Black experience through elements of everyday life and offering, as Wilson himself describes “white Americans a different way to look at black Americans”.
Wilson's death in 2005 from inoperable Stage IV cancer came between the premiere and Broadway opening of the final play in the cycle Radio Golf which began life at the Yale Rep in New Haven before landing on Broadway in 2007 at the Cort Theatre. At the age of 60 his body of work was above and beyond that of what is usually expected from any author, yet it was clear that his plays would continue to find a voice and his unfinished business would continue to keep his work dramatically relevant.
Wilson's widow Constanza Romero described her late husband as being content with what he had achieved in life, although she explains that there were two things left unfinished: “I think he felt proud of his achievements and faced death the way he faced life: courageously and uncompromisingly, but August wanted two things to happen that hadn’t happened. He wanted Jitney to finally be on Broadway. And he really, really wanted this movie to come into being.”
The movie with which she refers is 'Fences', his best known work of 1985 that won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Originally opening on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1987, it ran for 525 performances in a production that featured James Earl Jones in the lead role of Troy Maxon. The play displays Wilson's skill at expanding upon a tight domestic situation whilst simultaneously exploring race relations in modern America, presenting a taught and often heavy drama of broken dreams and generational guilt.
Fences was last seen in London in 2013 in a production that starred Lenny Henry in the lead role which was met with excellent reviews. Despite the play's length and altogether weighty subject matter, the role challenged Henry and forced critics to consider him as a serious dramatic actor. The high profile Broadway revival three years previously had starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, both gaining exceptional praise in a production that went on to win three Tony Awards including Best Actor for Washington and Best Revival of a Play. The success of this production led to an almost inevitability that the play would finally be filmed and Wilson would have one of his unresolved wishes.
After the initial success of Fences on stage Wilson had been approached by Paramount Studios in 1987 to put the play on film, but as much as Wilson wanted to see his work on the big screen, he was extremely specific in his requirements for director: "I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture” he explained. “White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans."
Wilson had apparently worked on numerous drafts of a screenplay before his death, but it was not until some years after that Producer Scott Rudin initially approached Denzel Washington about the possibility of starring in a film adaptation. It was agreed to try the play first on Broadway, before Washington agreed to star and direct in the film that reunites many of the cast, including his co-star Viola Davis.
The film's screenplay remains entirely credited to Wilson, although fellow Pulitzer-Prize winner Tony Kushner came aboard the project to work on his final draft, credited as a co-producer rather than writer. Wilson was posthumously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in a nod to his unfinished ambition to see his great work finally on screen. The film retains the language and drive of the stage play, instead playing with location and adding a new and slightly wider dimension on the drama itself.
What strikes you about 'Fences' as a film is how deeply theatrical is remains, which for fans of drama comes as something of a delight, but to film fans may seem to be an oddity. Set primarily on the steps of Troy's Pittsburgh home Washington plays with internal and external locations to mix up the visual whilst maintaining much of Wilson's text. Whilst on stage the language soars and grips you in the moment on film it can often feel quite slow and static and the film doesn't always embrace the benefits that a new medium presents.
That said the performances are first rate and carry with them the emotional intensity gained from numerous performances experienced onstage which makes for a highly realistic and perfectly developed relationships. As film sets are notorious for filming actors to capture a freshness without months of rehearsal, Washington uses their experience of the Broadway run and weeks of rehearsal to his advantage, and the quality and intensity of the performances shows throughout.
Both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington won Tony Awards for their performances onstage in Fences and were recently nominated for Academy Awards. As a film 'Fences' received mainly positive reviews and has grossed over $52 million since its initial release. The material remains almost unchanged and fans of Wilson's work and the play itself are unlikely to feel short changed, but those coming to his work for the first time may not necessarily see the immediate value of its presence on film. What the film lacks is a cinematic quality to justify its evolution into the new medium, and while the two central performances are unlikely to be bettered on either stage or screen in the same roles, the camera doesn't add enough value to the performance other than simply capture the pair of Titanic performances.
Washington confirmed plans to bring Wilson's other nine plays to the screen in the role of executive-producer for HBO who have acquired the rights to the entire cycle. Whether Fences will be the starting block for more people, especially those outside of America to discover Wilson's work remains to be seen, but to Washington it's both an honour and a privilege to look after his cherished estate.
“It’s a big responsibility. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. And it’s my life’s work right now” Washington commented in an interview with the Star Tribune. “It’s my 10 years’ life’s work right now. I mean, it’s one of the finest things that’s happened to me in my career to be asked to be the steward for one of our national treasures.”
Just as Wilson's widow Constanza Romero commented that the filming of Fences was a lifetime wish for her husband, his other desire came true last month as Jitney finally began performances on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. To have both events occur almost simultaneously must be of incredible comfort to the Wilson estate and Romero herself, furthering Wilson's popular legacy and cementing him as one of the greats of modern American drama.
Fences is released in UK cinemas on Friday 10 February 2017.