August Wilson doesn't yet have the broad name recognition of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but he may be the only playwright of recent decades deserving a place alongside those titans of American theater.
Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other accolades for works in his artistically vibrant "Pittsburgh Cycle" or "Century Cycle" of 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century and all written to illuminate the African-American experience of the period. As a cohesive body of work, Wilson's cycle arguably stands alone. A primary reason Wilson is not better known outside of theater circles is that his work has never been adapted for the screen — until now, with director and star Denzel Washington's moving Fences.
Fences was the third play Wilson wrote for what would become the cycle, and it cemented the playwright's reputation in 1987, winning a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play. It remains the most accessible and relatable of all Wilson's works. Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play (which won additional Tony Awards) and brings almost the entire stellar cast of that production — including the scene-stealing Viola Davis — to his film.
In his third film as director, Washington wisely opts to let Wilson's adapted screenplay (on which he worked for almost 20 years) and the powerhouse performances developed on Broadway dominate the screen version of Fences. It's a straightforward, no-nonsense work that offers a worthy introduction to the rich characterizations and emotional depth found in Wilson's finest plays.
Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a bittere, middle-aged garbage collector who was one of the greatest baseball players of his time, but came up just before blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues. His experiences with racism and the resulting lack of opportunity cloud his judgment as regards both his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who wants to pursue an athletic scholarship for college, and his long-suffering wife Rose (Davis). Set in Pittsburgh in 1957, Fences is a meditation on family life and what each generation leaves to the next that ultimately transcends issues of race.
In interviews, Washington and Davis have tried to diminish the arduous task of recalibrating large-scale theatrical performances for the intimacy of the screen, but their success in that area is what makes the film so powerful. The subtleties of their work keep audiences engaged and prevent Fences from sinking under the sheer weight of Wilson's verbiage — beautiful and insightful though it is. The supporting cast keeps up with them every step of the way and leaves its own indelible marks on Wilson's story.
As director, Washington might have found a way to give the film a stronger vibe of the American blues music that inspires and informs all of Wilson's work. And it would be easy to take Washington to task for generally playing it safe with the film, which seems more focused on preserving Wilson's play than on translating it to a new medium or creating something new. But maybe there are times when it's best to just get out of the way of a major work such as Fences — especially when you've got a noble task ahead of you like introducing Wilson to filmgoers across the globe.