Why has it taken so long for an August Wilson play to be turned into a film? Considered one of the greatest American playwrights, Wilson has gained critical acclaim for his 10 part “Pittsburgh cycle.” Each set in a different decade, Wilson’s plays brings us into the evolving black experience. Of all these plays, Fences is considered not only the greatest of his plays, but one of the greatest plays in America. First shown in 1983, it’s surprising this play hasn’t been made into a film sooner. Enter Denzel Washington. Going from Wilson’s original script, Washington stars and directs a film version of Fences, a portrait of a former sports star made mean by his experience.
In his youth, Troy Maxson (Washington) was a talented baseball player, making it in the Negro League. By the time the Major Leagues were desegregated, he was unable to play. Some say he was too old to play, but Troy suspects it was racial discrimination. Now, he makes a living as a trash collector, providing for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Resentful over his crummy existence, Troy spends his days drinking, eyeing other women. Though he states he doesn’t like his son, he’s determined to raise Cory to handle life’s hardships. His parenting’s put to the test when Cory’s accepted for football scholarships. Not wanting his son to following in his footsteps, Troy refuses to support Cory’s goals of working in college football. This leads Troy begins a downward spiral of alcohol and resentment.
Washington already won a Tony for playing the role on Broadway. For the film production, he brought in Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson reprise their roles Troy’s supportive wife Rose, His older, wiser best friend Jim Bono, His musician son Lyons and Troy’s brain damaged brother Gabriel, respectively. One of the only new cast members is Jovan Adepo, who brings out Corey’s need to please his hostile father. The strength of Washington’s directing is allowing other actors shine, especially Davis, who also won a Tony for her stage performance.
It also shows Wilson’s strength with character. While they are going through the same racial discrimination, each character present contrasting perspectives. Both Jim and Rose believe Corey has a better chance of making it, while Troy believes his son will go through the same discrimination he went through. Rose points out Corey wants to be like him, but Troy doesn’t want that. “I haven’t a pot to piss in nor a window to toss it out of.” This brings a more complex discussion of racial identity.
The film’s based on the screenplay Wilson wrote before death, which follows the play to a tee. Unfortunately, the script follows the play too much, making Fences feel more like a play than a movie. With the exceptions of a couple montages, the film mostly consists of the actors sitting around the same house talking. Film is a visual medium, and the script doesn’t take advantage of that. You have characters talking about events when the film could cut to those events. Instead Troy talking about his time playing baseball, they could have cut to flashbacks of him playing baseball. Instead of them discussing Troy’s asking his boss why only white employees drive the truck, you could cut to the confrontation. Show, don’t tell.
While that flaw may bore some people, those who aren’t will be treated to a compelling character study of a man slowly consumed by his own resentment. The amazing performances still make up for the lack of a visual experience. With its themes of racial prejudice, alcoholism and parenting, it’s a guarantee audiences will have a lot to talk about after the end credits.
 This was due to Wilson’s insistence it be made by an African American director. Looks like his persistence payed off even in death.