fences
The original Broadway production of “Fences” starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson.

A stirring and superior play, albeit a strange choice for a Christmas Day film release, Fences ought to be one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. The 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play examines the midlife of negro league baseball player-turned-garbage man Troy Maxson, who struggles with race relations, providing for his family, and the events of his own life in 1950’s Pittsburgh.

Everything up to the release of this film leads one to believe in its inevitable magnificence. Who wrote the script? The same man who penned the play in 1983, August Wilson. Who stars? Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who just finished a highly successful run of Fences on Broadway. Despite all this, story can still get lost in adaptation, so let’s make a few predictions about how the film Fences may fare:

What they will do:

If I’m making predictions, I’d say there’s almost no doubt that the play and film will be extremely similar, script-wise. They’re written by the same person, who certainly knows his characters and themes and what makes the story tick. A quick viewing of several trailers reveals the film’s intentions to remain true to the play’s dialogue: several of the play’s most iconic lines (notably: “How come you ain’t never liked me?”) provide voiceover for the trailers.

What they won’t do:

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Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) thinking about death and baseball during the play’s recent Broadway run.

This film will not focus 100 percent on race relations. What elevates the play above a lot of stories seeking to highlight the black experience is its commitment to character. Troy Maxson is more than just a downtrodden black man.

Troy represents a lot of people in that he had high aspirations (in his case, playing major-league baseball), that did a 180 and ended with him in a dead-end job. He struggles with the consequences of infidelity and multiple marriages. Though jealously and an elevated self-image often gets in the way, he strives for a better life for his son. He’s hardworking, yet hypocritical. Themes of duty, death, and relationships permeate the work far, far more than the unique matter of black vs. white.

Yes, racial inequality certainly plays a role in the play, and undoubtedly in the upcoming film. But what transforms it into an enduring work is Troy’s complexity and humanity.

What they should do:

In terms of setting, plays confine themselves to a few locations, many of them unspecific, such as “a street” or “the woods.” In Fences, the action takes place primarily in Tory’s front yard.

A film, however, needs to feel sufficiently cinematic. Plays often highlight character above setting. But films are about total immersion. Washington should explore more than a stage director could. Should us the inciting incident at Troy and Bonos workplace rather than having us watch them discuss it after the fact. Drop us down in 1950’s Pittsburgh. Take advantage of a more expansive medium.

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Most promotional images for the film involve smiley Christmas poses. Hmm. But this is classic literature, so we know that can’t last.

What they shouldn’t do:

Camera work can highlight certain traits without revealing others, no matter how solid the script or acting. Passionate characteristics like anger naturally have more power, but the Fences team ought to be careful not to leave subtler, humanizing aspects of personality by the wayside.

It is imperative that Troy Maxson not become a villain. In the wrong hands, Troy could easily become despicable given much of his dialogue and actions. Tragic figure, yes. Unlikeable at times? Absolutely. But unless we retain some empathy for a man upon whom the entire plot hinges, none of the film’s themes will resonate.

Wish List Item:

Syyyyyyymoblism! Let’s see some lingering shots of that fence, particularly during moments when Troy or other characters are talking about protecting what they have (or keeping undesireable things out of striking distance). My personal idea for a final shot would be panning across the newly-built fence to see a baseball bat resting against it.

Chances of a home run here? Eh. I’m not a filmmaker and however cool my ending may be, I suppose it might turn out heavy-handed. 20%.


Fences, directed by Denzel Washington and written by August Wilson, arrives in theaters on December 25 and stars Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Jovan Adepo


Images: Playbill, Paramount Pictures