We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Every payday, garbage collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) holds court in the backyard of the Pittsburgh home he shares with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). By Troy’s side are his two best friends, Bono (Stephen Henderson), the co-worker he’s known for decades, and a bottle of gin, which Troy has also known for decades. Both are very good listeners, and there’s nothing Troy enjoys more than a captive audience. When his tales spin too wildly into fiction—at one point, Troy reminisces about wrestling with Death itself—Rose steps outside to playfully call him on his nonsense. Troy cuddles with her, tossing the raunchiest dialogue he has to offer in her direction. As the evening progresses, Troy is sometimes joined by his eldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who borrows money, or his disabled war veteran brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who has just moved from Troy’s home in a defiant display of his independence. Life is a series of routines culminating in death. Every payday brings Troy Maxson closer to his wrestling partner.
This repeated scenario forms the basis of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences.” 29 years after its Broadway premiere, “Fences” arrives in theaters courtesy of a screenplay by the late playwright himself. With two Pulitzer Prizes and his ten-play magnum opus, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” (of which “Fences” is the sixth work), Wilson takes his rightful place alongside Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams as one of the greatest American playwrights. The focus of Wilson’s cycle is African-American life across the entire 20th century, with each play taking place in a particular decade. “Fences” is set in the 1950’s, but the timeframe does not date the material. Its universal themes supersede any of its societal details, though based on this year’s election cycle, viewers may be stunned to discover that the American working class is more than just Midwestern and White.
Wilson’s plays are rich, poetic, wordy affairs tinged with music, the magical nature of myth, and symbolic elements that work extremely well as live theater. Since theater is an intimate medium, the general consensus on translating plays to screen is to “open up” the play, which quite often destroys the natural fabric of the work. The masterful thing about Denzel Washington’s direction here is that he doesn’t exactly open up the play. Instead, he opens up the visual frame around the players. He and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the entire screen to occasionally dwarf the characters inside the backyard setting where much of the film takes place. At other times, tight framing gives an air of claustrophobia that’s almost suffocating. Throughout, there’s clear evidence that careful thought has been put into the quiet visual architecture of this film; there are several visual motifs that support the themes in Wilson’s words, and not once does a character seem to be in the wrong spot. For example, a scene between Bono and Troy, where Bono warns Troy of impending ruination, places the actors in the bottom right of the frame while rubble and an empty field symbolically take up most of the screen.
Most importantly, Washington as director knows that the biggest star in this film is its writing. When a film has actors this committed to speaking their lines, to the point where it seems they are turning themselves inside out with anguish, the camera is always exactly where it needs to be—it is with them, listening as intently as we in the audience are. This type of direction is a lost art nowadays, evoking a prior time when masters like Billy Wilder and Sidney Lumet plied their trades. In fact, it was Wilder who eschewed the notion that ostentatious, flashy direction was what made for great drama, saying that if “something were said to be well-directed, that is proof that it is not.” Washington understands this, and “Fences” is much more powerful for his devotion to his actors’ craft. When Viola Davis is showing you how hard her heart is breaking, the camera doesn’t need to be competing for your attention.