Legendary playwright August Wilson made Oscar history at this year’s 89th Academy Awards, by receiving a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie Fences (2016) twelve years after his death. Wilson had always dreamed of transferring his Pulitzer Prize winning play onto the big screen, but he passed away in 2005 before the final project came to fruition. Paramount struggled for almost thirty years to find the right artist to helm Wilson’s project, until Denzel Washington, who had already won the Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance as Troy Maxson in the 2010 Broadway Revival, decided to not only star but also direct this film version. The story follows the life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a Black garbage collector living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, as he struggles to support his family and confront his inner demons. Since Washington wanted to authentically emulate Wilson’s poignant depiction of Black America, he decided to leave Wilson’s original script untouched. Subsequently, many criticized the film for merely reproducing the staged production and not functioning as a film of its own merits. Even though some aspects of the film do feel theatrical, Washington, nonetheless, creates a more personal account through his strategic camera placements that heighten the drama and intimacy of the story.
The very nature of a film production requires actors to interact with the camera instead of a live audience, and this already creates a very different viewing experience. One should not look further than the play’s iconic “Why don’t you like me” confrontation in order to understand the differences each narrative medium encompasses. In this scene, Cory Maxson (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s son, questions his father’s “hatred” towards him. Troy angrily responds that his job, as a parent, is to only take care of his son, not to like him. While this pep-talk means to teach Cory how to gain respect from others, it leaves him (and the audience) disconcerted and scared. The camera pries into this very personal and emotional space, making the audience feel as if they have invaded the family’s privacy. Washington speaks sternly yet sincerely, as he chastises his son for asking foolish questions. This complexity in emotions creates a more compelling performance, as the audience senses that Troy’s anger stems from love not hatred for his son. When Washington uses the traditional shot-reverse-shot conversation set up for this scene, the camera, from Cory’s perspective, slightly looks up, making Troy look larger and more menacing.
However, this scene in the Broadway adaptation has a more comedic overtone. Here, the spine-tingling confrontation between father and son seems less private and intimate, as the actors must shout loudly and pause for audience reactions. Gone are the intricate camera set-ups, as the viewer digests this scene from whatever angle they have of the stage from their seats. The audience laughs when Troy teases and criticizes his son, since Washington acts more charmingly and anticipates the audience’s response. The awkward pauses between their responses allows time for laughter but it also distorts the scene’s inherent flow. While tension still exists within this iteration, this version of Fences interacts with the audience in a completely different way than the film, subsequently, creating a new interpretation of Wilson’s story.
Besides this scene, Washington takes other advantages of the medium of film to capture Wilson’s spirit in the movie. The final time the audience sees Troy, he stares directly into the camera and breaks the fourth-wall, as he crazily aims a baseball bat at the scared and disturbed viewer. Such a feeling could never be accomplished by the Broadway production. On the other hand, Washington could have, admittedly, done more with the liberties of the film medium. For example, when Troy recalls his childhood stories in the beginning of the film, Washington does not use flashbacks to show us the events. Instead, he lets the script do the talking, which simultaneously preserves Wilson’s prose and limits the film’s innovation.
Everybody has their preference of which iteration of a story they like. Some may argue that nothing will ever top the stage production of Fences while others will herald Washington’s film as a masterpiece. Regardless of choice, criticizing the film as a mere identical copy of the play does injustice to not only Washington’s passionate work but also Wilson’s script.
FencesBroadway. “FENCES Clip: HOW COME YOU AIN’T NEVER LIKED ME?”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 03 May 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBTXS42dj40&t=35s>.
Paramount. “Fences (2016) – “Why Don’t You Like Me” Clip – Paramount Pictures.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG3c6klWZIE>.
Zeitchick, Steven. “Adapting August Wilson: How His Play ‘Fences’ Became a Movie (and Why so Much of His Work Hasn’t).” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 5 Jan. 2017.