For most of its history, Hollywood cinema has told a story of the American Dream, or rather, the yearning to be something in the land of opportunity. There is the immigrant’s story and the Pilgrim’s story. There is the slave’s story, the prisoner’s story. Mostly, though, there is one side of the story that gets told, and told again and again and again. You know which side I mean without the need to name it. August Wilson tells the other side. He spent much of his life as a writer telling the stories of ordinary/extraordinary black Americans. The best of these is Fences, his Pulitzer Prize-winning play that takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
In Fences, Wilson wanted to take an average invisible worker, a garbage truck worker, and travel inside his life, explore his story, and in so doing bring us the rarely-told mythology and reality of the black experience as it relates to the American Dream and the American story. Roy (Denzel Washington) and his family live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street where they live out the daily struggles of an imperfect life. This is not directly a story of oppression, segregation. or racism, but rather the silent echo of those truths permeating throughout the background of their lives. Roy could be anybody, but his own hopes and dreams were stifled because there was only so far most black man could go back then. Roy wanted to be a professional ball player but that path was not open to him.
Fences, though, isn’t as simple as a tale of dashed opportunities or thwarted dreams. It’s a bigger, more complex story with unpredictable rhythms and beats as each of the characters work through their own mistakes, under the weight of lowered expectations from a society that never really rolled out the welcome mat of opportunity for the descendants of antebellum oppression.
This isn’t so much a story about white vs. black, but there is no doubt that the legacy of slavery whispers hotly through it, as almost a hiss. It’s there because it can’t not be there. It’s there because that legacy promised to choke the life out of anyone who dared defy those rules coming out of the Civil War. We know which side had to win. We know what was done to ensure that legacy — and we found out all over again on November 8th.
But Fences transcends those traditional narratives because it is that rare story about the black experience that isn’t necessarily made for white people to feel better about themselves, or worse about themselves either. In fact, it’s not really made for white people at all, except to invite them in and show them a story about people whose story is so rarely told on stage or in film, especially like this.
August Wilson’s early work as a writer was as a poet and that informs every line of this play, with words braided together, looped around, reshaped and remade into a language all his own. The rhythm of it, the repetition of certain words, the bare and stark vulgarity of it, the raw sexuality of it, the tragedy of it — and finally, the beauty of it — is encapsulated within its language. Not every actor can manage it, inthe same way that not all can really manage Shakespeare, or Tennessee Williams, or David Mamet. Denzel Washington clearly knows how to find actors who can do August Wilson. He found them all right.
If Fences was only a showcase for Viola Davis’ performance as Rose, that alone would have been worth it. Davis’ Rose is a kind (if a bit hesitant) woman utterly consumed by her love for Roy. He makes her feel so desired. Every time he looks at her or touches her it’s a carnal beckoning. So it is almost a physical impossibility for Rose to break free of Roy, no matter what he does. They are bound together, for better or worse. But it comes as no surprise that the play, and its characters, depend on her. Roy is the darkness, perhaps, and Rose is the light. Rose is the family’s hope for a better world for their children. All the same, it would be easy to hate Roy for the trouble he causes, but somehow, because great writing can do this, we’re given more of him than the one dimension of bad behavior.
Because I watch a lot movies, I’ve come to accept the limitations of storytelling. Many critics seem to want these perfectly constructed showcases that can’t ever be “flawed” or “uneven.” It’s a tall order to have a well-crafted film that offers heart and soul and some kind of transformative experience. But I’d forgotten that writing could be this good, that acting could reach these heights on film anymore. I’d forgotten so much that when I first saw Fences, I did not expect it would linger the way it has. Part of that is Washington and Davis, no doubt. But there is something more — and that’s the mostly unexplored relationships of a man who can’t step up and be a father and a husband. His frailty, his incompleteness, his fear of death. All of that makes Roy so utterly, wholly human. Perhaps that is what we miss seeing with many black characters on screen, at least not in the films I see every year, those that are burdened with ticking all the right boxes.
The past is doomed to hold Roy back, even as he and his family reach hopelessly for redemption, from a fair shot at the American Dream. Fences is indeed a justifiably famous play, a pinnacle of American theater. But not all plays, no matter how great, translate to the screen to become great cinema. Directors like Kazan in the ’50s, Nichols in the ’60s, Fosse in the ’70s, whose careers began in theater, understood how to make the transition work. But plays remain out of reach for most audiences, and those that get Hollywood’s attention have proven their worth. So whenever a play is preserved on film, you could do a lot worse than to watch any of them, bearing in mind that they’re no longer plays because their new form has altered the context of engagement. Fences roars to cinematic life with unique vigor because it arrives at a time when the country is saying goodbye to its first black president. We started out the Obama era inching our way towards rewarding the first and only Best Picture winner about slavery, 12 Years a Slave. Black artists deserve and demand more stories be told to depict lives where a black man is not a slave but a president, and everything in between. Fences answers that call. That is what makes it one of the most important films of not just the year, but of the decade.
Fences achieves much of its cinematic vitality when we watch what these actors can do. Washington’s body — how he stoops, how he struts, how he wilts, how he intimidates — was made for the big screen. He is a movie star in the best sense. Born to be seen that big and that wide and that lit up. He brings us inside a world that must remain confined, closed in. To have opened it up, made Fences bigger, or to call attention to visual flourishes would have done a disservice to Wilson’s work. It was meant to be a poetic cascade of words that move through the actors like an electric storm.
Fences is about the things that hold us back, and it’s about the things we block out. It’s a beautiful metaphor about the external and the internal, the twisted, perplexing contradictory nature of human beings. And here, August Wilson gets at the truth by scratching away layers of illusion and pretense.
This is easily Washington’s best film as an actor and as a director — which makes it all the more frustrating to know that many reviews will be filtered through minds that I’m not sure will fully grasp the the form of a play, for starters, or the language of this play specifically. They will look at it and talk about it like they would any movie, making mental notes of the construction and the execution, the climax and resolution. Watching a film like this with a critical eye asks — no, demands — that we go deeper than that. Some will. Some won’t. This is a film that really needs nothing more than its script, its actors. and the expert way Washington brings it all to vivid life on the big screen.
What a brilliant American writer we had in August Wilson. Even if his renown will long be well-remembered and honored in theater circles, it is really only up on the big screen that his name and this film and the world he unearthed can be more broadly appreciated, forever registered, and cemented in the canon of American culture. We will hear a lot about the vanished America whose “forgotten men” supposedly decided this election. We will hear a lot about the factories that left, the security that broke down, the power that disappeared. Underneath all of that talk is the truth of the thing: that White America always had a hard time admitting that the American Dream didn’t exclusively belong to them. There are parallel lives to be documented. Lives not white. Ordinary towns and cities all over the country are filled with these ordinary Americans. August Wilson wanted to remind us that the people we might not think about, might not see, the nondescript men emptying our garbage cans, are themselves filled with the same dreams. They, too, look up at the same sky expecting miracles.