August Wilson’s iconic play hits UK screens on the 10th of February, just under two months after its initial release in the US. Directed by, and starring screen legend Denzel Washington, who is supported by The Help’s Viola Davis, the star-studded cast isn’t the only reason to give this film a watch. The 1950s American setting still rings true for many African-Americans, the themes explored are still prominent in a newly changing, complex society.
I first came across the play version of Fences around eighteen months ago, and its strong message has stuck with me ever since I read and studied it. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences is part of the legendary Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays that won Wilson two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each of the ten plays is set in a different decade, aiming to highlight black people’s experience throughout the twentieth century. Despite his huge dramatic success, none of Wilson’s works have ever been adapted for the cinematic screen — until now.
Modelled largely on Wilson’s own life, Fences is a powerful, moving play, that largely deserves the respect it is given. It is about a complex, father/son relationship, during a time in which the role and identity of a black man in America was also changing. These differences between father and son are felt prominently throughout, each wanting different outcomes for the young boy’s future. The mother, Rose, (played by Viola Davis) is desperately trying to keep the small family together, and attempts to bring Troy Maxson (Washington) into the present. Critics have recognised Wilson’s attempt to make Fences a comment on his own relationship with male figures; his father, a white man who was absent from his life, and his stepfather, David Bedford. Fences examines the strong black men who taught Wilson about manhood, and acted as a sort of mirror for the playwright.
Most importantly, the play discusses the tense relationship that existed between white and black culture. Troy is old-fashioned; he is resentful of the white man, his superior when it comes to his job and someone who limited him from becoming a successful sportsman in his younger days. Therefore, when his son is offered a sports scholarship from a white coach, he is dubious, critical, and perhaps even a little jealous. He cannot accept the changing co-existence between whites and blacks, and some would argue for good reason. However, his son’s view of him ultimately suffers because of this, and Troy remains trapped behind his ever-growing garden fence until his death.
Denzel Washington’s attempt to ‘Hollywood’ the play therefore comes at a very important time in American history. Comments on black people’s identity and position in America have always been discussed, from ‘the war on drugs’ and unfair incarceration, to the controversial first Black President of the United States. Some believed that with Obama in The White House, the struggle for African-Americans was ultimately ‘won’. However, after his eight years in office are coming to an end, we know all too well that that is not the case. In a little over a week, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated and his discriminating comments about all minority groups will be allowed to become the face of America. This leaves African-Americans across the nation asking themselves yet again what their position is in the country; will there ever be progress, are their opinions deemed important, and where will they be in another eight years?
Whilst Wilson’s play may be a comment on America in the 1950s, and written retrospectively during a time when black rights were campaigned on a much larger, fiercer scale, the messages and themes are still largely applicable. The disjointed and complex relationship the USA has with its African-Americans, is set to be re-examined in the foreseeable future.