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Taking the Crookeds with the Straights – the Case for Fences

August Wilson wanted to expand perceptions in America, to tell the stories that don’t get told. Even though he began his career in theater over thirty years ago, not a lot changed in Hollywood to reflect his efforts. To a great extent, those stories in movies stopped getting told at all. White filmmakers couldn’t tell them because at the end of the day their movies would often seem filtered through a skewed viewpoint — narratives of segregation, overcoming poverty, the magical negro. Although directors like Steven Spielberg meant well, somehow honorable films like The Color Purple ended what might have been a renaissance for black storytellers and films with black casts. However we got here and whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that there has been a major shift in 2016, a shift too significant to be attributed to the Oscarssowhite hashtag.

It might turn out that 2016 represents a summit of Obama’s America on screen. If you look at where the Oscar race was when he took office, you’ll recall that The Hurt Locker, the only film about the Iraq war to win Best Picture, did nothing more than lead to a chain of nostalgia-driven wins that seemed to have nothing to do with what was happening in the world around us. Not until 12 Years  a Slave became the first film by a black director to win an Oscar and the first film about the black experience and starring black actors to win, would the Oscars return its attention to social issues. That this victory for Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley occurred in 2013, the year after Obama’s re-election is, I think, not a coincidence. The success of Hamilton on Broadway is another cultural touchstone that owes much to Obama’s inspirational leadership, as well, and I like to believe that this year’s abundance of stories told by black writers and directors, starring black actors about the black experience in America, represents a culmination and fitting tribute to our great president in his last few months in office.

Either way you slice it, our current wealth of stories of diversity stem from the tradition of rich storytelling August Wilson pushed for with his Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays written from 1982 to 2005 that span every decade of the 20th century and examine facets African American life over the past 100 years. The best of these is Fences, a film that many have wanted to bring to the big screen long before now but the rights were withheld. Why? Because Wilson had specified that the director of the film be an African American. The wisdom of the playwright’s requirement can now be seen, now that the opportunity has been given to Denzel Washington, a director who’s been quietly honing his craft with stage productions that most critics unfairly overlooked. You see, to succeed in the Oscar race you have to appeal to a bunch of mostly white, mostly male critics, and then to industry voters. Even when these films do catch fire with critics (Fruitvale Station) or get the attention of industry voters (The Butler), they are often shut out anyway, just because. The standards that must be met to overcome the unspoken bias are bizarre, when films that are half as good get nominated.

History rumbles like distant thunder of storms that have already been weathered in Fences. The struggle of black baseball players to overcome the color barrier. The exile of black residents from Pittsburgh neighborhoods to make way for more affluent white families. The storms of Wilson’s own childhood, raised by a single mother in a boxy apartment while his father was nowhere to be found. Fences is a great American play, among the greatest ever written. To do it proper justice, Denzel Washington’s Fences emerges as a showcase of the industry’s best actors, and by bringing us one of the best films of 2016, Washington bursts forward as one of our greatest directors.

Washington’s own ferocious performance in Fences is matched by a staggering team of supporting players, all of them at the top of their game. Not a weak link in the bunch, from Jovan Adepo as Cory, to Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, to Russell Hornsby as Lyons, and even the brilliantly bright tiny genius Saniyya Sidney as Raynell. These are actors so good they are their own visual effect. Washington warmly showcases each of them here, out of respect for Wilson’s lyrical, poetic dialogue (my god, people, those words) and the art of acting itself. Though no one, not even Washington, can compare to the film’s heart and soul, Rose, a rapturous Viola Davis who finally gets a film role where she can breathe deep. We at last get the chance to see Viola Davis play a fully developed, richly written, whole human being with a spectrum of experiences. Not to imply any slight for portraying a maid, or worried mother, or tough cop, or law professor. She has always been given just the one thing and she always finds depths beyond all expectations. But here, she is a vibrant, sexual woman in love with a man whose monumental dignity and engrossing presence fills her up. She is a mother, a mother so giving and kind that she raises another woman’s child because that child is like “all of them babies she never had.” Washington pays devoted tribute to Davis in this film. He does it because that’s the way Wilson wrote it and because Washington watched Davis play it night after night onstage. He knows that her performance is the most important one in the film – and Fences, it could be argued, is his gift to her. In so doing, it’s a gift to all of the unsung black actors who never get this kind of opportunity, but especially actresses of color — black actress, Hispanic actresses, Asian actresses. Roles like this are rarely seen because even if they are written they are not bought and produced by white Hollywood. For most, for too long, that door has remained tightly shut. But now, with breathtaking mastery, it’s been flung open. 

Fences is a film I cannot stop thinking about and cannot stop watching. Every time I rewatch it it’s like seeing a different movie. Washington has imbued his vision of Wilson’s work with so many subtle details you simply can’t catch them all on first pass. People with limited thinking skills may watch it and say, “Oh, it’s like a play.” How can you even have that conversation? I can’t. And yet, there it is, in all it’s facile shallowness — stupid is as stupid does. People are thrown by a film that relies so heavily, so faithfully on the layered acting, precise staging, and heightened writing. Washington keeps the action contained in one setting because his film wasn’t going to try to undo or outdo what August Wilson wrote. The metaphor of the play is that fences keep you in and keep you out. That’s why it has to be an enclosed space. That is why it was written that way.

As Troy Maxon, Denzel Washington has never been better as an actor or a director. Never. I have to say that I personally have never been so captivated by a single performance by an actor as I am with this performance. It is so complex, so unpredictable, so inexplicable. In one performance, the entire story of a tortuous family tree is told. The long shadow of slavery that was cast upon generations of black men whose masculinity was thwarted by a culture that could not handle their strength. That inter-generational roadblock — the fences that kept black men and women out of the American dream in the land of opportunity, cut off from opportunities only afforded to white citizens. What a tease that is, to know that just on the other side of that fence would have been brought fame, wealth and glory as a talented athlete and so many other pathways to happiness. To Troy, that fence is as vivid and real as it was when he was growing up. To his son Cory, it barely exists — until his father shows it to him, helps him build it, tries to teach him that those opportunities can never been explored because that fence is always going to keep him out.

I’ve read a few misinterpretations of Troy that attempt to impose the political correctness of 2016 onto his character, that want this to be a story of good or bad, that demand to see a father like this punished for his treatment of hos wife and his sons. But the baseball metaphor looms large. “You have to take the crookeds with the straights.”  Rose sees in Troy his full measure, both the admirable and the destructive. With a depiction as clear-eyed and honest as this, Fences never aims to gloss over Troy’s weaknesses — it means to expose them. But it also shows us that each new generation can find ways around the fence, so oppression can be broken past, and new possibilities discovered. When this play was written in 1983 that was the hope. And now, it’s 2016. America is saying goodbye to its first black president. That fence is still there. If black men are being shot on the street just for walking on it, that fence is still there. But despite the barriers still in place, black children now know that they can be anything they want, even President of the United States. August Wilson’s premise is proven. You take the crookeds with the straights.

Fences is such a brilliant play, a lofty pillar of American literature. These actors who have made it come alive are so exceptionally talented. It’s daunting to describe such a rich cinematic experience, one of the most potent I have had all year, so I can barely find words to explain to you the why of it. Some works of art simply leave you stunned and amazed. You have no choice but to sit back in awe and bow down in gratitude.