Film & Television

Attention Must Be Paid; Viola Davis and Denzel Washington Shine in ‘Fences’

In Arthur Miller’s 1949 masterpiece Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman, the long-suffering wife of Willy, pleads with her sons and the world that “Attention must be paid.”

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

In many ways, Fences, August Wilson’s heartbreaking 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play addresses the same themes: deeply dysfunctional families, the slow death of the American dream, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, sports as metaphor and potential ticket out. The original Broadway production of Fences won multiple Tony Awards. 2010’s revival was again recognized with a Tony for Best Revival of a Play, as well as Best Actor for Denzel Washington and Best Actress for Viola Davis.

Washington and Davis, along with key other 2010 Broadway cast members Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby, are now starring in the powerful film adaptation of Fences. The screenplay is by Wilson (who passed away 12 years ago) and it’s directed by Washington. This is the Oscar-winning actor’s third time behind the camera (Antwone Fisher, 2002; Great Debaters, 2007), and it’s taken him six years to bring his vision of Fences to the screen. And, what a fine job he has done!

Wilson’s widow has asked Washington to take charge of adapting the other nine titles in the playwright’s “Pittsburgh Cycle.” In an interview with NPR, Washington explained what that means to him and to making the industry more inclusive:

What an opportunity we have now, because August Wilson has left us about a thousand pages of his brilliant work, and we have 10 opportunities — the first one now being Fences — to make sure it’s not a trend. … I have enough work for the next 10 years, even if it’s just as a producer, but also there are hundreds of actors — African-American and white actors — in his plays that now will have an opportunity to not just work but to interpret a genius’ work — one of the five greatest playwrights in American history’s work. So I honor that.

Fences is set in a black Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950s. Times are changing, but the civil rights movement is still a decade away. Troy Maxson (Washington) makes a living as a garbage collector, but longs for the days when he was a superstar in the Negro Baseball League. Every Friday (which is payday), he relives his glory days, holding court in his scruffy backyard with a bottle of gin and his best friend Bono (Henderson). His wife Rose (Davis) puts up with his tall tales, keeping him in line when necessary, while encouraging their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who may be offered a football scholarship. Most Fridays, Troy’s son from an earlier marriage Lyons (Hornsby) stops by on his way to a music gig to borrow money. And, the family is rounded out by Troy’s brother Gabriel, who suffered a brain injury in the war and carries a battered trumpet so he can open the gates of heaven.

Faithfully adapted from the stage version, Fences has more dialogue and less action than we’re used to at the movies. Back-stories (Troy’s in particular) unfold slowly, and scenes are long and static. However, once you get used to watching what really feels like a play onscreen, you’ll be completely absorbed by the performances.

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