Fences (2016) – from the Great White Way to the Silver Screen

Many years ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform the August Wilson play Fences on Broadway. Fast forward a few years later, imagine my surprise (?) when news came out that they would be reprising their roles for the big screen. Of course, the cynical side of me immediately went to this being the ideal awards-bait. This status was further assured when the release date was announced. Would I allow this cynicism to deter me from seeing what is sure to be a cinematic display of tour-de-force acting (which it was, by the way)? Well, obviously I am writing about it, so I did not let this transient thought dissuade me one bit.

With a screenplay from the late playwright August Wilson and directed by star Washington, Fences is part six of Wilson’s ten-part saga (“The Pittsburgh Cycle”), which chronicles the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century.

Set in the late 1950’s, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh sanitation employee married to Rose (Davis), devoted wife and mother to their teenage child Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is a former Negro League baseball player who showed a great deal of promise until his life takes an ill-fated turn. It is this life-altering event which forever changes Troy and leaves him with a great deal of “bitterness,” a bitterness which becomes more apparent as our story progresses.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. By all accounts, given the time and circumstances under which they live, the Maxsons have a rather ordinary and stable home life, which includes visits from Troy’s recently departed (from their shared home) disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, reprising his stage role) and Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russel Hornsby, reprising his stage role) from a previous marriage. Another member of the extended Maxson clan is Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his stage role), Troy’s coworker and best friend.

As earlier mentioned, eventually the combined impact of Troy’s feelings about the course of his life and a myriad of forces from the outside world collide and manifest themselves, impacting the internal life of the family; I will leave it to you to see how fences come into play.

Beyond the literal and/or figurative meaning of “fences,” we have a dynamic family drama which unfolds beyond our eyes. Maybe because of my nearly seven-year separation from seeing the stage production, I was able to simply watch and enjoy without playing that mental game of “checking off the plot points.” Not doing this allowed more than a handful of scenes to really pack a punch and emotionally resonate with me.

One thing that always makes or breaks a movie adaptation of a stage play for me is the way in which the environment that surrounds the central action is presented on screen. In other words, how much the “visual world” of the story is represented on film. At its worst, it can go either the direction of being too isolated (maintaining the “single set” feeling stage plays are generally confined to) or go way too big – this usually feels like the film production is all too aware of matters of scale and therefore attempts to remedy this by expanding the movie to what they perceive will make it better suited for the cinema. Fences strikes this balance quite well. In fact, such a personal, intimate family drama lends itself to this visual storytelling.

One final point I had made note to point out as I reviewed Fences was the physicality of Mr. Washington. This is more a credit to how well he has aged over the years than anything else in my opinion, but I do remember thinking to myself as I watched the stage show, that he looked a little young in the role. So fast forward to the film adaptation, and I have to say that just the look of him really seemed to suit the character of a world-weary Troy Maxson much better.

As I reflect on these words, I really did not anticipate that this post was going to heavily rely on me comparing my stage and screen experiences, but I guess that was inevitable, especially as I enjoyed each in its particular medium. Not sure when (and if) this play will ever return to the Great White Way, but in case it doesn’t I highly recommend you take the opportunity to catch it at your local movie theater.

A Quick Reaction To “Won’t Back Down” (2012)

I must admit that I did not go into this Won’t Back Down with the highest of expectations and unfortunately, that target was met. What I suppose was to be a powerful statement on the current state of the education system had a decidedly afterschool special feel to it.

Inspired by ‘actual events’ the story goes a little something like this: a hard-working, dedicated single mom in Pittsburgh, PA (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose daughter has dyslexia. The school she is currently in is essentially a poorly managed holding cell that has no intention of providing the resources that her daughter needs, not to ay anything for providing a basic education for her or any of the students. Elsewhere in the school you have a teacher (Viola Davis) from the same school who has her own obstacles to overcome – among them: fighting her own apathy at her present vocation, dealing with her own child (who may or may not have learning disabilities) and marriage hanging on by the narrowest of threads.

After the hopes of reaching the Utopia of a charter school where there are too few spots available there is the  “just in time” revelation that there exists “parent trigger laws” that essentially permits parents (with the support of the community and a majority of teachers) in a failing school to take it over. After some back and forth, our heroines decide to join forces and now we  have the perfect recipe for a fight-the-system story that takes all of its characters on a “journey,’ the end of which is a catalyst for change. I guess that is the point anyway – to leave its audience inspired. I felt anything but inspired; I felt this was an insincere attempt to manipulate my emotions. This is not even to speak of the film’s thinly veiled political message.

It all begins with the statement on the film’s official website:

Putting aside partisan divides and political agendas, WON’T BACK DOWN takes a raw and unflinching look at the current state of our country’s education system, and provides an optimistic and actionable point of view for parents, teachers, and community activists alike.

What it appears we have here is a classic case of  “the lady doth protest too much.” The story DOES have a strong statement to make, if not an outright agenda, concerning teachers’ unions as stalwarts of the status quo. There is one particularly vile portrayal of a teacher who shops on an online website while her students run amok and terrorize Gyllenhaal’s daughter. In more than one instance, this teacher even seems complicit in giving the unfortunate girl a hard time.

Putting politics aside (please), as far as the acting is concerned, Viola Davis, for all of her acting prowess , turns in what has become her standard solid performance. She really does the best she can with the material. For her part, Maggie Gyllenhaal is also making the best out of a clichéd and hokey script.

In the end, given the current state of education in this country, I imagine that there are many stories out there to be told – indeed, some of them are probably even destined for the silver screen. Hopefully, these future tales will spin a more balanced and naturally uplifting narrative.