Having just seen Denzel Washington’s production of Fences at my local multiplex, I’m collecting my thoughts about the film’s Oscar chances. Fences, of course, is part of August Wilson’s so-called Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays about the African-American experience. It reached Broadway in 1987, in a production toplined by James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who once dreamed of baseball stardom. That production won Wilson and company a slew of Tony Awards, plus a Pulitzer prize.
Wilson was long ago approached by Hollywood regarding Fences. He made it clear he would never permit the play to be filmed unless a black director was at the helm. Still, before his death in 2005 at age 60, he wrote a screen adaptation of his stage play. The very enterprising Scott Rudin (Ex Machina, Captain Phillips) suggested Denzel Washington bring Fences to the screen, and this idea evolved into a much-lauded 2010 Broadway revival, starring Washington as well as Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and the magnificent Viola Davis. All four have ended up in Washington’s film version, along with some excellent younger actors.
So how do I feel about Fences as a movie? It’s a powerful representation of August Wilson’s theatrical world. It’s valuable in bringing to audiences who’ve never seen a Wilson play an articulation of his motifs, like the impact of the past upon the present and the role of racism in crushing (or cruelly twisting) the black man’s spirit. But despite its Oscar nomination as one of the year’s best films, Fences remains at heart a play. And though August Wilson earned a posthumous nomination for adapting his own stage work into a screenplay, a quick look back at the original suggests to me that not much has been changed to take advantage of the screen’s unique properties. A Wilson play is all about language, its ebbs and its flows. Wilson characters deliver lengthy speeches full of poetic rhythms that can make them resemble arias. Yes, director Washington has added some visuals: street scenes, a glimpse of Troy Maxson and his crony Bono at work on a garbage truck. But mainly we have static locations (chiefly the crammed yard of Maxson’s Pittsburgh row house) and far more talking than most movies can handle. It’s brilliant talking, wonderfully executed, but this didn’t feel like a movie to me.
I also have mixed emotions about giving acting awards to performers who’ve just finished playing the identical roles on stage. As strong a performance as Washington gives, he’s already been duly rewarded with a Tony. Yet there’s talk about him becoming the new frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar, given that he triumphed at the SAG Award ceremony over Casey Affleck of Manchester by the Sea. As always, external forces may be at work here. Affleck has some messiness in his past (accusations of sexual harassment) that may make some squeamish about supporting him, despite the stellar nature of his performance as Lee Chandler. And it’s tempting to see this shaping up as a year with an #Oscarsoblack tinge. But Denzel Washington isn’t lacking for Oscars on his mantel, and I’m personally in awe of Affleck’s subtle work. Of course, I don’t have a vote.
Viola Davis is another story. I could argue, certainly, that what she gives is a Best Actress performance. Putting her in a Supporting Actress category is slightly unfair to her fellow nominees, like Michelle Williams and Naomie Harris, who do exceedingly well with much less screen time. But Davis has been due for years, and it seems her moment has finally come.