The actors sit with the NBA legend and cultural commentator to discuss adapting August Wilson's classic — the suddenly urgent 'King Lear' of African-American plays — "to inspire Americans to dismantle this tyrannical cycle."
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," wrote Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina in 1873. Ninety years later, August Wilson said pretty much the same thing with his 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Wilson's play, and Denzel Washington's intense and riveting new film adaptation, out Dec. 25, examine the roots of unhappiness in a seemingly happy black family in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. These cultural roots, like Alex Haley's famous novel, extend back through American history, revealing the insidious legacy that modern black families have inherited and how that legacy impacts their hopes, dreams and realities.
The Maxson family's unhappiness results from a toxic mixture of the patriarch's unapologetic hubris and the pressures of being raised black in a white society that marginalizes, degrades and oppresses anyone not in the mainstream. Troy Maxson (Washington) isn't aware that while he battles for equality from the white society, he's imposing the same tyrannical restrictions he's struggling against on his own family. He has become the very enemy he's fighting.
Watching the deterioration of the Maxson family is like watching time-lapse video of a shiny red apple decomposing. There is a Shakespearean pageantry to this tragic story of how one man's self-destructive obsession with what he thinks he deserves clouds his ability to see the value in what he already has. We experience the inevitable unraveling of the family with such overwhelming emotions, thanks to the uncompromising performances of Washington and Viola Davis, that we can't help but share their pain. What makes the film such a triumph is its clear affection and sympathy for all the characters and their struggles, presenting them without judgment. There's plenty of humor and joy, love and bravery, tenderness and loyalty to make our holiday visit with the Maxson family one we never will forget. And maybe it will help us understand our own families just a little bit better.
Wilson, who died in 2005, believed that all art was political, so there's a certain melancholy in the audience when they realize that the racial conditions and conflicts that so profoundly affect the Maxson family during the 1950s still exist today. Fences was first produced onstage in 1983 but is set 30 years earlier so the 1980s audience could better understand how little had changed in those three decades. Now here we are 30 years after that first production, 60 years after the play's setting, still frustratingly aware that black Americans are stuck on the social and political treadmill while those more privileged race past them. The recent election of Donald Trump seems like an endorsement of the racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia that made the 1950s such a symbol of Happy Days nostalgia for whites and of humiliating repression for blacks and other marginalized people. One of the most powerful effects of the movie is to humanize this struggle and to inspire Americans to dismantle this tyrannical cycle.
Fences is the sixth and most acclaimed play in Wilson's 10-part "Century Cycle" that explores the love and conflicts within an average black family. By bearing witness, the audience comes to understand the issues that all families share, regardless of ethnicity, and those that are unique because of specific ethnicity. Wilson saw his plays as a way for everyone to better understand the treacherous dynamic that is family life and the various ways we scar and heal one another. He also saw it as a way for white Americans to better understand how similar their family experience is to that of blacks. "In Fences, they see a garbageman," he told The Paris Review, "a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things — love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives." In this way, Wilson hoped his plays would add his voice to the chorus of the civil rights movement.
The play's critical reception indicates that Wilson succeeded in reaching an appreciative audience. Not only did it win the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but that same year it won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and the Tony Award for best play. In 2010, five years after Wilson's death, the play was revived starring Washington and Davis, who each won Tonys, while the revival won several other awards.
After watching the film, I was so emotionally and intellectually affected that I was bristling with questions. So I sat down with its two brilliant stars to look for some answers.
Editor's Note: This edited conversation contains a few plot spoilers for those unfamiliar with the story of Fences.
To me, Fences is emotionally compelling and unflinching in how honest it is. It reminds me of what King Lear would have been if Shakespeare was black and had lived in Pittsburgh. It has the same powerful theme of a man who dooms his wonderful life because his ego and his pride really blind him. Is that how you guys saw it?
DENZEL WASHINGTON I just needed a fool. No fool, huh? Well, he was the fool. I never heard that before. Have you?
VIOLA DAVIS It's like Death of a Salesman, maybe, but not King Lear.
It was like Lear because he takes everybody down with him.
DAVIS Yeah, because he's a tragic hero. He's your everyman kind of antihero. That's a great observation.
August Wilson once said that his plays offer white Americans a different way to look at black Americans, and he hoped that they would change how they think and deal with black Americans. What insights into black people and black life do you think white Americans will get from the film?
WASHINGTON It could be that it's not that different. Circumstances, no matter what the color is, could be similar. Troy's whole [resentment of his lack of success as a baseball player] … was it his color or was he just too old? I think he was just too old regardless of his color. Or, as his friends said, "He just come along too early."
DAVIS I think sometimes what people miss about black people is that we're complicated, that we are indeed messy, that we do our best with what we've been given. We come into the world exactly like you. It's just that there are circumstances in the culture that are dictated and put on our lives that we have to fight against.
WASHINGTON And it's a curse and a blessing to have someone to blame. What about the guy in the mirror?
And most people avoid that?
WASHINGTON Of course, of course.
Wilson also said that all art is political. The play premiered in 1985. Why do you think the story still is relevant after 30 years, especially after the recent presidential election that we've been through?
WASHINGTON The circumstances, again, are universal. It could happen to anyone. I don't know if it's more political now given the election or whatever, but it's a long way from Troy to now because now we're post-Obama even.
DAVIS I don't know why I don't see the play as political. I don't see it as representing something any bigger than a family and a man being born into a set of circumstances and maybe not taking ownership of how he's poisoning his family, which most of us don't. Some of us go to our grave never taking ownership. We just cause destruction around us. Arthur Miller said it, and August Wilson said it: When you notice all of the sins of your father, hopefully you can approach it with forgiveness and illumination. That's just life.
Every time a film with a mostly black cast does well at the box office, Hollywood acts surprised, even when it's Tyler Perry's Madea movies, which consistently do well. Do you think that attitude is an obstacle to getting your movie noticed?
WASHINGTON The surprise now is, "Why didn't we have one of those?" "Who is our Tyler Perry?" It's strictly business. If I loan you $25 million, I want my money back. I don't want to hear about the social impact. That's great for you, but now I'm $25 million in the hole, so next time you come to ask me …
The title Fences seems to mean different things to different characters. For Rose, it's an enclosure to keep her family together. For Troy, it's a barrier to keep out things that he can't control, like death and his own passions. In the end, it fails them both. What does this tell the audience about Fences?
DAVIS That maybe you can't control your life. August has a line in, I think, Seven Guitars, where he's like, "Man got plan, but God, He got plan, too."
I read that Hollywood wanted to film Fences years ago with a white director, but Wilson refused. He thought that the director needed to have lived the culture of black Americans. Do you think he was right?
WASHINGTON Scorsese probably could have directed Schindler's List and Spielberg probably could have directed Goodfellas. But it's as much to do with the difference in culture as it is with race. We know what hair smells like when a hot comb hits it. That's a cultural thing. We know what that smells like on Sunday mornings, usually church-related or something. In my house, it was getting ready for church and your sister was getting her hair fried.
Smell the Bergamot?
WASHINGTON Yeah, Bergamot, exactly. Now, the average man doesn't know what Bergamot is. What color is Bergamot? Blue, thank you. But that's cultural, right? Bergamot. You went deep.
Sports is a central metaphor in this play. And Troy believes, probably erroneously, that he could have been a professional baseball player if not for the racism. He uses this as an excuse to crush his son's dream of playing football. And that really had some resonance with me because every black athlete has to deal with that definition of racism: how it affects how he plays, how it affects the value of black players who want to come and play in the future. Was that part of your thought process while you were directing it?
WASHINGTON The baggage that Troy brings affects everyone he touches, and you can see it in Rose's face. She's heard it and seen it before. No, he can't hit 10 home runs or whatever he says. But he has to believe it. He needs to believe it. That's all he's got to hold on to.
It justifies his rage?
WASHINGTON In his mind, yes, absolutely.
Troy talks a lot about what it means to be a man, particularly a black man, but his ideas often are delusional. What do you think the film says about being a black man?
WASHINGTON Well, I love the things he says to his son about responsibility and taking care of his family. "Mr. Rand don't give me my money because he like me. He give it to me because he owe me." In my own life, I had a male teacher who was trying to teach me things that I didn't believe — how you should treat women and things like that — but I knew better. But Cory doesn't know better.
DAVIS They're all trying to find this reason to matter, a place in the world. When I look at Fences, with Cory needing a connection with his father, Troy, his disconnect from his father to me is even more relevant in his life than not making it to the football league. That is a theme in all of Wilson's plays, the need to matter.
That's insightful. Denzel, this is your third time directing after Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. What is it about certain material that makes you say that it's not enough to perform it, you must also direct?
WASHINGTON Nothing. I never said I must also direct it. Someone always asks me. It's never been my desire. [Producer] Scott Rudin brought me August Wilson's screenplay seven or eight years ago. And he said: "What do you want to do? Do you want to direct it? Do you want to produce it? Do you want act in it?" And I said, "Well, let me read it first." So when I read it, I said, "No, I want to do the play." And then it took another seven years of being a chicken.
At one point, Rose tells Troy, "You are a womanless man." It's almost like a curse. What does that mean to Troy? Because he's pretty shaken up when she says it.
DAVIS Rose in that moment, first of all, is just definitely telling him it's over. That's what we do when we break up. We try to hurt. And it's hard for me to say consciously that Rose was trying to hurt.
WASHINGTON Yeah, for me it meant standing there for another 20 seconds hearing, when we were doing the play, jeering. And I'm like, "Turn the lights up, please."
You've worked repeatedly with certain directors including Spike Lee, Tony Scott and Antoine Fuqua. What did you learn from them that has helped you as a director?
WASHINGTON I didn't understand how hard their job was until I tried to do it. And then I just stole from them; shots, just ways of working, preparation. Sidney Lumet; I did a movie called Power in 1985, and Sidney stood the whole screenplay up on its feet like a play. That's what we did when we rehearsed for a couple of weeks. We stood it up to catch the young folks up but also to give us a sense, to bridge the gap between the play and the movie.
Rose is filled with vitality, intelligence and a surprising amount of optimism, yet she seems to be whatever the men in her life need from her. What drives her?
DAVIS She says it in the end: "That's what life offered me in the way of being a woman, and I took it." You're only as good as your options.
And she deals with Troy's girl compassionately. That was love raising that child.
DAVIS That is a huge need for a lot of women, even in 2016. You can have the most ambitious career woman, and at the end of the day, she's like, "I just want to be a mom." And, by the way, sitting with other mommies is probably the most frightening experience in the entire world. They're serious into mommy-shaming.
WASHINGTON What is that?
DAVIS Diane Sawyer's interview with [Columbine killer] Dylan Klebold's mother was so great because at one point Klebold said, "There's certain things I didn't want to see in my son because I didn't want to admit to myself that I was a bad mother." You could be a bad actress, you could even be a bad wife, but you cannot be a bad mother. And Rose says, "When that baby came into my life, I saw an opportunity, and I took it."
Viola, you've been directed by Denzel before in Antwone Fisher. Has he changed much as a director?
WASHINGTON Should I leave the room?
DAVIS I see Denzel as an actor's director, which is very rare, by the way. Usually it's Alfred Hitchcock telling Tippi Hedren, "When you hear some noise, go up there in that attic even though you know there may be some birds up there that could kill you." And she's like, "Well, why would I do that?" "Because I want the shot." But Denzel understands actors' language, actors' insight, just what makes us tick. His other gift is he's a great teacher. Those stand-ins that came in, the young actors who were stand-ins, he also directed them even to do the play basically.
The very first line is, "Troy, you ought to stop lying." That tells us right away he's an unreliable narrator. What were some of the challenges of playing such a deeply flawed and destructive character? Did you go home every night and just hug your family?
WASHINGTON You can't go into it that way, like, "Oh, he's flawed." No, he thinks something is wrong with everybody else. And he only knows to crash into it harder, it will change. That's what I love about him.
After Rose discovers Troy has betrayed her, she stays with him. Even though the story is set during the 1950s, some contemporary women might have trouble understanding her decision. What can you tell those women?
DAVIS There are a lot of women like that who stay. I mean, they just do. Whether you want to admit that's you or not, it is very prevalent. We all are doing the best we can. I would like to say that I'm a walking poster board for feminism and women's liberation, but there are things that I do in my life that deeply, deeply fall short of being a statement for being a strong woman. I am flawed as much as anyone else. Once again: choices. This is not a woman who has $5,000 in the bank.
WASHINGTON I asked my mother about that because my mother was raised in Harlem. And I said, "What would happen to her if a woman left her husband in the church?" She said every other woman would keep their eye on her because now she's a single woman. I said, "Really?" I didn't think of it that way.
Final question: What do you hope the audience comes away with after they watch Fences?
WASHINGTON I always say it depends upon what they bring to it.
DAVIS People don't understand that when you come into any theatrical experience, you've got to come locked and loaded, that you're a part of the experience, too. You can't come with your arms crossed. Be open to it.
WASHINGTON When we did the play, sometimes we had to wrestle the play back from the audience because they'd take it and run. I came out there with that baby one night, and one woman said, "Oh, Denzel!" Not, "Oh, Troy!"
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.