The actors sit with the NBA legend and cultural commentator to discuss adapting August Wilson’s classic — the suddenly urgent ‘King Lear’ of African-American plays — “to inspire Americans to dismantle this tyrannical cycle.”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina in 1873. Ninety years later, August Wilson said pretty much the same thing with his 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Wilson’s play, and Denzel Washington’s intense and riveting new film adaptation, out Dec. 25, examine the roots of unhappiness in a seemingly happy black family in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. These cultural roots, like Alex Haley’s famous novel, extend back through American history, revealing the insidious legacy that modern black families have inherited and how that legacy impacts their hopes, dreams and realities.
The Maxson family’s unhappiness results from a toxic mixture of the patriarch’s unapologetic hubris and the pressures of being raised black in a white society that marginalizes, degrades and oppresses anyone not in the mainstream. Troy Maxson (Washington) isn’t aware that while he battles for equality from the white society, he’s imposing the same tyrannical restrictions he’s struggling against on his own family. He has become the very enemy he’s fighting.
Watching the deterioration of the Maxson family is like watching time-lapse video of a shiny red apple decomposing. There is a Shakespearean pageantry to this tragic story of how one man’s self-destructive obsession with what he thinks he deserves clouds his ability to see the value in what he already has. We experience the inevitable unraveling of the family with such overwhelming emotions, thanks to the uncompromising performances of Washington and Viola Davis, that we can’t help but share their pain. What makes the film such a triumph is its clear affection and sympathy for all the characters and their struggles, presenting them without judgment. There’s plenty of humor and joy, love and bravery, tenderness and loyalty to make our holiday visit with the Maxson family one we never will forget. And maybe it will help us understand our own families just a little bit better.
Wilson, who died in 2005, believed that all art was political, so there’s a certain melancholy in the audience when they realize that the racial conditions and conflicts that so profoundly affect the Maxson family during the 1950s still exist today. Fences was first produced onstage in 1983 but is set 30 years earlier so the 1980s audience could better understand how little had changed in those three decades. Now here we are 30 years after that first production, 60 years after the play’s setting, still frustratingly aware that black Americans are stuck on the social and political treadmill while those more privileged race past them. The recent election of Donald Trump seems like an endorsement of the racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia that made the 1950s such a symbol of Happy Days nostalgia for whites and of humiliating repression for blacks and other marginalized people. One of the most powerful effects of the movie is to humanize this struggle and to inspire Americans to dismantle this tyrannical cycle.
Fences is the sixth and most acclaimed play in Wilson’s 10-part “Century Cycle” that explores the love and conflicts within an average black family. By bearing witness, the audience comes to understand the issues that all families share, regardless of ethnicity, and those that are unique because of specific ethnicity. Wilson saw his plays as a way for everyone to better understand the treacherous dynamic that is family life and the various ways we scar and heal one another. He also saw it as a way for white Americans to better understand how similar their family experience is to that of blacks. “In Fences, they see a garbageman,” he told The Paris Review, “a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things — love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.” In this way, Wilson hoped his plays would add his voice to the chorus of the civil rights movement.
The play’s critical reception indicates that Wilson succeeded in reaching an appreciative audience. Not only did it win the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but that same year it won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and the Tony Award for best play. In 2010, five years after Wilson’s death, the play was revived starring Washington and Davis, who each won Tonys, while the revival won several other awards.
After watching the film, I was so emotionally and intellectually affected that I was bristling with questions. So I sat down with its two brilliant stars to look for some answers.
Editor’s Note: This edited conversation contains a few plot spoilers for those unfamiliar with the story of Fences.
To me, Fences is emotionally compelling and unflinching in how honest it is. It reminds me of what King Lear would have been if Shakespeare was black and had lived in Pittsburgh. It has the same powerful theme of a man who dooms his wonderful life because his ego and his pride really blind him. Is that how you guys saw it?
DENZEL WASHINGTON I just needed a fool. No fool, huh? Well, he was the fool. I never heard that before. Have you?
VIOLA DAVIS It’s like Death of a Salesman, maybe, but not King Lear.
It was like Lear because he takes everybody down with him.
DAVIS Yeah, because he’s a tragic hero. He’s your everyman kind of antihero. That’s a great observation.
August Wilson once said that his plays offer white Americans a different way to look at black Americans, and he hoped that they would change how they think and deal with black Americans. What insights into black people and black life do you think white Americans will get from the film?
WASHINGTON It could be that it’s not that different. Circumstances, no matter what the color is, could be similar. Troy’s whole [resentment of his lack of success as a baseball player] … was it his color or was he just too old? I think he was just too old regardless of his color. Or, as his friends said, “He just come along too early.”
DAVIS I think sometimes what people miss about black people is that we’re complicated, that we are indeed messy, that we do our best with what we’ve been given. We come into the world exactly like you. It’s just that there are circumstances in the culture that are dictated and put on our lives that we have to fight against.
WASHINGTON And it’s a curse and a blessing to have someone to blame. What about the guy in the mirror?
And most people avoid that?
WASHINGTON Of course, of course.
Wilson also said that all art is political. The play premiered in 1985. Why do you think the story still is relevant after 30 years, especially after the recent presidential election that we’ve been through?
WASHINGTON The circumstances, again, are universal. It could happen to anyone. I don’t know if it’s more political now given the election or whatever, but it’s a long way from Troy to now because now we’re post-Obama even.
DAVIS I don’t know why I don’t see the play as political. I don’t see it as representing something any bigger than a family and a man being born into a set of circumstances and maybe not taking ownership of how he’s poisoning his family, which most of us don’t. Some of us go to our grave never taking ownership. We just cause destruction around us. Arthur Miller said it, and August Wilson said it: When you notice all of the sins of your father, hopefully you can approach it with forgiveness and illumination. That’s just life.
Every time a film with a mostly black cast does well at the box office, Hollywood acts surprised, even when it’s Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, which consistently do well. Do you think that attitude is an obstacle to getting your movie noticed?
WASHINGTON The surprise now is, “Why didn’t we have one of those?” “Who is our Tyler Perry?” It’s strictly business. If I loan you $25 million, I want my money back. I don’t want to hear about the social impact. That’s great for you, but now I’m $25 million in the hole, so next time you come to ask me …
The title Fences seems to mean different things to different characters. For Rose, it’s an enclosure to keep her family together. For Troy, it’s a barrier to keep out things that he can’t control, like death and his own passions. In the end, it fails them both. What does this tell the audience about Fences?
DAVIS That maybe you can’t control your life. August has a line in, I think, Seven Guitars, where he’s like, “Man got plan, but God, He got plan, too.”
I read that Hollywood wanted to film Fences years ago with a white director, but Wilson refused. He thought that the director needed to have lived the culture of black Americans. Do you think he was right?
WASHINGTON Scorsese probably could have directed Schindler’s List and Spielberg probably could have directed Goodfellas. But it’s as much to do with the difference in culture as it is with race. We know what hair smells like when a hot comb hits it. That’s a cultural thing. We know what that smells like on Sunday mornings, usually church-related or something. In my house, it was getting ready for church and your sister was getting her hair fried.
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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar