“Fences” latches onto August Wilson’s legacy



Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences." David Lee|Paramount Pictures

By Ian Flanagan / Senior Staff Writer

Denzel Washington added another film to his sparse directorial portfolio and brought Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson to the silver screen for the first time in “Fences” — and the result is exemplary.

“Fences” is the first film version of one of Wilson’s works, adapted from the play of the same name which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. The play was one of a ten-part series called “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” which chronicled African American life in Pittsburgh.

Washington starred alongside Viola Davis in the film adaptation, after the pair performed the same material on the Broadway stage in 2010. Obviously familiar with the original play, Washington’s “Fences” is the most recent credit to Washington’s abilities as a director, following 2002’s “Antwone Fisher” and 2007’s “The Great Debaters.”

Wilson, who died in 2005 at the age of 60, was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Wilson set his script in the same neighborhood, where Washington also shot the film. The production of “Fences” ran from April 25, 2016, through June 2016 on a budget of $24 million.

Although two decades of playwriting made Wilson a mainstay of the theater world, the film adaptation of “Fences” may make him into a household name.

The film, which is heavy on words and light on set changes, struggles at times with its traditionally visual-focused format. Despite this, Washington does the best he can with the material, staging impressive sequences of dialogue inside and outside the 1950s Pittsburgh residence of married couple Troy and Rose Maxson.

The central conflict of the film, aside from a strained relationship between the Maxsons, revolves around their son Cory’s (Jovan Adepo) ambitions to play football in college and his father’s stern discouragement of those dreams.

Troy, played by Washington, was formerly a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but never got his shot at Major League Baseball — the color line was only broken by Jackie Robinson in the late 1940s.

The remainder of the cast includes Stephen Henderson as Troy’s best friend and fellow waste collector Jim Bono, Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally impaired older brother Gabe and Russell Hornsby as Lyons, a musician and Troy’s son from another marriage.

In Lyons’ first scene, he requests a ten-dollar loan from Troy, who challenges the favor. This scene skillfully highlights the stubbornness and slightly authoritarian nature of Washington’s character.

The film’s formidable runtime of 139 minutes flies by, and the dissection of the family unit never strays into forced melodrama or tedium. It is a performance film — though not to the movie’s discredit because of the excellent cast. A committed actor inhabits each role, and the ensemble, paired with such esteemed material, is captivating even at close to two and a half hours.

“Fences” hardly wears its roots on its sleeve, barely noting its Pittsburgh setting in a reach for broader universality. Save for a brief moment where the camera lingers over the city’s name on a pay stub, there is only minimal mention of the Hill District or any other local identity.

Though Pittsburgh is known for being a film city — 2015 included productions of “Southpaw,” “Concussion” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — the local industry has focused on a narrow range of film content and little socioeconomic or racial diversity, according to the director of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers school John Cantine. “Fences,” however, sets a positive precedent.

Cantine said one of his goals at Filmmakers is to draw a wider range of people into film.

“One of the things that people in town are looking at — and Pittsburgh Filmmakers is looking at — is ways to get people into the field at the entry level from more diverse backgrounds,” Cantine said. “And how do you do that? How do you attract people to this industry? How do you make sure that it’s a viable career?”

Both Pitt and Filmmakers have educational responsibilities in that respect, Cantine said, but most Pittsburghers focus on the economic benefits the film industry brings to the city.

“When people talk about workforce development and diversifying the local economy, they talk about the film industry along with health care and education,” Cantine said. “It’s another outlet for people to have a career in entertainment.”

Through “Fences,” Pittsburgh continues to be a hub for filmmakers while also attempting to put its lack of diversity in the past. Following the #oscarssowhite controversy of last year, the issue is garnering more attention, especially with “Fences” receiving such far-reaching acclaim. The film not only made the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year but also received two acting nods at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, including a win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Davis this past Sunday.

Now that awards season is in full effect, “Fences” seems a lock for nominations in Best Picture, Best Actor for Washington, Best Supporting Actress for Davis — although her screen time justifies her being in contention for lead actress — and Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards.

Davis seems likely to secure her first Oscar win following two past nominations, including one for her stunning supporting role in just one scene of 2008’s “Doubt.” Washington alone is a marvel in “Fences.” If Casey Affleck’s towering performance in Best Picture contender “Manchester by the Sea” wasn’t the clear frontrunner, Denzel would have his best shot at a win since 2001’s “Training Day.”

While the drama in “Fences’’ is so effective that it separates itself from the pack, there’s little chance that it will nab the big win.

Regardless of the award results, the most positive result of “Fences” is that it will reach more people than Wilson’s plays ever could.

By ditching the familiar action fare — such as “The Magnificent Seven” — for something more sincere, Washington’s performance in front of the camera and his dedication behind it permanently cements Pittsburgh’s relevance and Wilson’s legacy.

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