USA (138 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Denzel Washington Official Site
Like being hit with a ton of bricks, this film has an awesome power, yet the agonizing truth is the protagonists are stuck in a period of history where the most they could hope for would leave them standing still, as there was no possibility whatsoever of progress being made in black America. That is the economic reality from which this film was spawned, where few understood this as well as playwright August Wilson, where this is the only one of his plays that he ever wrote a screenplay for before his death in 2005. First, a word about playwright August Wilson, who is to the black community what Eugene O’Neill may be to the whites, both Pulitzer Prize winners who are known as gifted writers of dialogue, among the greatest ever, where Wilson’s poetic language chronicling the black experience in America is actually described as “music.” Having never formally studied theater, Wilson credits the blues, specifically Bessie Smith’s rendition of “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,” Bessie Smith - Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine YouTube (3:22) as a defining moment in his life, as it made him recognize the poetry in the everyday language of black America, providing the inspiration and freedom to use that language in his own writing. Wilson is best known for his unprecedented cycle of 10 plays, known as the Century Cycle, one set for each decade, that chronicle the black experience in the 20th century. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theater in the world to produce the entire 10-play cycle, spanning from 1986 to 2007, where two of the productions were world premieres. All but one take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an economically depressed neighborhood where Wilson was born in 1945 and spent his youth. Fences was originally a 1983 play, winning the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for the author, the other being The Piano Lesson (1990), which was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, where the play opened on Broadway in 1987 winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice), returning in 2010 where it won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Actress (Viola Davis). In a deal with HBO, Denzel Washington is bringing all ten of August Wilson’s plays to the screen, releasing one per year, where he will be the executive producer for them all, though this first venture is with Paramount, with Washington acting, directing, and producing, bringing over most of the Broadway cast and crew already familiar with the work, where five of the six featured characters originally appeared on stage.
Set in a working class district of Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, the timing of the work is appropriate, as most white Americans have nostalgic recollections of the 50’s, including Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Sputnik and the Space Race, Las Vegas, the Rat Pack, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the advent of television, including a nostalgic tribute to the decade with the Fonz and Happy Days (1974 – 83), with seven of ten Republicans today fondly preferring America as it was in the 50’s, remembering it as an era of prosperity and good schools, living in the safety of the suburbs where there were no problems to speak of and the American Dream was still alive and well. Black Americans have an entirely different view, as they remained segregated by a separate and unequal society unable to earn a living wage, as they were unable to live or eat or go to school with whites, attend the same church, or even the same hospitals, requiring separate bathrooms and accommodations, where nearly 100 years after the Civil War, blacks remained legally discriminated against on every front, forced to live in shabbier sections of town where life expectancy was considerably lower while forced to take the jobs whites didn’t want. It is in the heart of this racial and economic discrepancy that August Wilson sets his story, a conversational chamber drama that showcases the larger-than-life personality of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53-year old garbage collector who struggles to financially make ends meet, living pay check by pay check, arriving home with his friend and work partner Bono (Stephen Henderson), both chattering away while pulling from a shared pint of vodka, feeling upbeat and hopeful, as it’s Friday, the end of the week, and more importantly it’s payday. Troy’s character speaks nearly uninterrupted for the opening twenty minutes of the film, where we quickly learn he dominates his household with an iron fist, where his natural charm is drowned out by his bitterness, enraged that he’s routinely passed over by less qualified whites on his job, remaining haunted by lost dreams, where he was once a promising ballplayer in the Negro Leagues with hopes of playing major league baseball, but his career was derailed by racial prejudice and a prison sentence until time simply passed him by and he was too old to play. While he still has the braggadocio of an athlete, claiming he was better than today’s black ballplayers and seen a hundred men play ball better than Jackie Robinson, Bono cuts through the myriad of self-delusions with the sarcastic quip, “I know you got some Uncle Remus in your blood.”
Troy’s vacillating moods comprise the rhythm of the film, with various characters jumping in and out of the picture, including his long-suffering wife of eighteen years, Rose (Viola Davis), who chimes in when he’s stretched the truth too far with his embellishments, but the humorous mood turns on a dime to one of righteous anger when his grown son arrives, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz player who barely scrapes by, asking to borrow money, which is met with unending contempt for his habit of always arriving on payday. It’s Rose that eventually gives him the money while reminding Troy that college recruiters are arriving for his younger son’s next high school football game, where Cory (Jovan Adepo) might be offered a scholarship. But Troy dismisses his son’s chances, reminding him that whites won’t let him into their game, so he may as well look elsewhere to earn a living. His own failed experience taints the view of his son’s existing possibilities, actually undermining his son’s chances once the opportunity arises by refusing to sign the permission slip allowing recruiters into his home, denying his chance to go to college, which only exacerbates the hostility and anger Cory feels towards him, thinking it’s only jealousy because he might be a better athlete than his father was. These relentless mood shifts of lost hope and broken dreams recur throughout, leading to an intense examination of the harsh realities of their lives, which doesn’t get any better, becoming a deep-seeded, psychological examination of systematic despair, where the fence he intends to build, supposedly to keep others out, is actually a suffocating experience locking them in at the same time, becoming a metaphor for all the obstacles placed in their path, like how to survive on the other side of the fence, as blacks are routinely excluded from white neighborhoods, with racism so ingrained into society, causing blacks to have to learn to play by a different set of unspoken rules that exist only for them. That is the underlying moral dilemma of the film.
Troy has a mentally damaged younger brother with a metal plate in his head, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose brain was damaged by shrapnel while serving as a soldier in World War II. We learn that Troy bought the house he lives in by taking the money that was Gabriel’s compensation for his injury, while Gabriel rents a room somewhere and wanders the streets aimlessly, seemingly rootless and homeless, the kind of person people walk past on the street without giving him a second thought. Plagued by guilt, yet bordering on the supernatural, Troy believes he’s gotten such a raw deal in life that he’s actually fought with the Devil just to survive, becoming a ghostly presence bogging him down, eating away at him, where we learn to appreciate what he’s overcome, but at the same time despise the meanness and domineering attitudes that come with it, as the hard-headedness and lack of sympathy that he displays towards others feels punishing, especially when it’s aimed at Rose, who is among the more selfless creatures on earth, yet the two get down into the muck in a knock-down, drag-out fight that is as emotionally wrenching a scene as anything seen all year, with Troy’s hypocrisy exposed, where Rose finally stands up to him and refuses to budge, setting the stage for even darker misfortunes that lie ahead. In one of the more hauntingly beautiful moments, expressed with unimaginable tenderness, women dressed all in white lay their hands on Rose in an attempt to heal her damaged spirit. Despite Troy being the center of attention, almost to the point of distraction, a living Sisyphus forever charged with pushing that ball over the mountain, only to have to do it all over again, and then again on into perpetuity, it’s Rose who is the heart and soul of the film, where Viola Davis is a revelation in the role, offering her greatest performance in what is ultimately a fitting tribute to all black women, becoming the maternal symbol of grace that miraculously holds broken families together during the harshest times, defying unimaginable odds, much like they did during slavery times.