Denzel Washington Brings August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ to the Screen

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Actor Denzel Washington attends a special screening of Fences, at Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall, on Monday, December 19, 2016, in New York. 

The film version of August Wilson’s play Fences—a stunning slice-of-life drama that illuminates large issues of race, family, and work—links the story of one family with civil rights history and the Pittsburgh neighborhood where the film takes place.

It is 1957, and the film’s protagonist, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), owns a small, run-down house with a tiny backyard in the Hill District, the heart of Pittsburgh’s black community, where he lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their 17-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is 53 and earns $74 a week ($32,000 a year in today’s dollars) as a garbage collector, which he dutifully hands over to Rose every Friday.

Though he lives paycheck to paycheck—and can’t even afford $200 to buy a television or $234 to fix the roof—Troy has attained a modest level of success as a member of the black working class. He feels great pride in being able to care for his family, but is consumed with rage over racism, which he believes has held him back and trapped him in a life of quiet desperation. 

He still bears the psychological wounds of his Southern childhood. Abandoned by his mother and physically abused by his sharecropper father, he headed north like many Southern blacks. He was sometimes homeless, became a thief, and wound up in prison for murder, where he learned to play baseball, later joining the professional Negro Leagues after his release. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was a star slugger. 

His biggest regret, however, is that he never got to play in the majors. By the time Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Troy was 43. He believes it was his race, not his age, that locked him out of the money and fame that could have been his.

Troy sees racism everywhere, a constant companion he can’t elude. Whites get jobs driving the trucks, while blacks have the harder and dirtier job of hauling the garbage cans. When he tries to buy furniture for his house, the salesman tells him he doesn’t qualify for credit despite his steady income. Hours later, someone from the same store knocks on his door, offering to sell him the furniture at an exorbitant interest rate—a practice now called predatory lending whose victims are primarily black. 

Their marriage is filled with lust, love, tenderness, banter, and humor, but Troy takes out his frustrations on long-suffering Rose with alcohol-fueled outbursts about his plight in life.

“Maybe I come into the world backwards, I don’t know,” he says to Rose. “But you born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate. You got to guard it closely, always looking for the curve ball on the inside corner. You can’t afford to let none get past you. You can’t afford a call strike. … I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job … I was safe. Couldn’t nothing touch me, I wasn’t gonna strike out no more.” 

“I didn't know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine,” Rose tells Cory. “It was my choice. It was my life and I didn’t have to live it like that. But that’s what life offered me in the way of being a woman and I took it.”

Cory fears his father more than he respects him, an archetypal conflict with a stern father who insists Cory calls him “sir” and submits to his will. Troy can be understanding, but his relationship with Cory can also be irrational, rooted in his own emotional scars. When a recruiter from a college in North Carolina offers Cory a football scholarship, Troy refuses to meet with him or sign the papers, saying it’s for Cory’s own good.

“The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football no way,” he tells his son. “You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can't nobody take away from you.”

Rose pleads with Troy, telling him Cory just wants to be an athlete like him. “I don't want him to be like me!” Troy answers. “I decided 17 years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in sports.” Rose and Cory both recognize that Troy also fears Cory might achieve the success he didn’t have. Cory finishes high school, and joins the Marines instead of following his fathers’ career advice.

Troy tries to avoid being a passive victim. He files a grievance for being overlooked for a driving job. His best friend and fellow garbage hauler, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), worries he’ll get fired, but Troy does become the city’s first black garbage truck driver, though he can’t read and doesn’t have a driver’s license. After a few months, Troy tells Jim that while he enjoys the extra pay, he misses the camaraderie with fellow workers at the back of the truck. His attitude about his promotion is a metaphor for his view of life in general. Be wary of success, for it comes at a price.

Troy’s experience in the Negro Leagues, and his failure to play in the majors, is a constant refrain. The film doesn’t identify his teams, but one can assume he was with the Pittsburgh Crawfords (named after the Crawford Grill, a prominent Hill District nightclub) or the Homestead Grays, another Pittsburgh club. 

Soon after Robinson crossed baseball’s color line, however, the Negro Leagues folded. Most black Americans welcomed Major League Baseball’s integration as they later welcomed the end of separate drinking fountains and segregated schools. But while Major League teams recruited a handful of the best, like Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Satchell Paige, the demise of the Negro Leagues destroyed the careers of many excellent black ball players. 

Jim tells Troy that the only sluggers who were better than him were Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, who was the greatest hitter in the Negro Leagues when he played for both the Crawfords and the Grays between 1930 and 1946. Troy responds: “What it ever get me?  Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Take that fellow, playing right field for the Yankees back then [1940]. Selkirk. Man batting .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with 37 home runs.”

Troy sees Gibson’s fate as a warning. In a racist society, don’t allow your dreams to exceed your grasp.

“I saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday,” he tells Jim. “She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around the raggedy shows in her feet. I bet you that!”

Both Rose and Cory tell Troy that his despair is outdated. Cory points out that the Pittsburgh Pirates now have several black players. Troy complains that the black players, even Roberto Clemente, mostly ride the bench.

(The Pirates’ first black player, former Negro League second baseman Curt Roberts, joined the team in 1954 but was back in the minors two years later. By 1957, however, the Pirates had four African American players. Clemente, who became a superstar and outspoken advocate for black and Latino players, was in his third year as the Pirates’ regular right–fielder. That year, he suffered a back injury that limited his play during the season.  It wasn’t until 1962 that the last Major League team, the Boston Red Sox, had at least one black player on its roster. Ironically, on September 1, 1971, the Pirates became the first Major League team to field an all black and Latino starting nine).

Perhaps Rose and Cory were more attuned to the burgeoning civil rights movement, which is not mentioned once in the film. Three years before Fences takes place, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling; the following year, Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, catapulting Martin Luther King Jr. onto the public stage. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black students from white mobs trying to block the integration of Central High School.

 

AUGUST WILSON WAS BORN IN THE HILL DISTRICT in 1945. In some ways, the neighborhood itself is the central character in the Wilson’s nine plays, called The Pittsburgh Cycle, which chart the city’s black experience throughout the 20th century, each play taking place in a different decade. 

Wilson wrote Fences in 1983. It was first performed on Broadway in 1987, when it won a Pulitzer and a Tony. Wilson’s insistence that a film version have a black director delayed the project, but he wrote the screenplay before he died in 2005. Four years later, Paramount producer Scott Rudin approached Denzel Washington about directing and starring in the film. But first, in 2010, Rudin produced a Broadway revival, with Washington and Davis in the lead roles. Rudin recruited Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America) to work with Washington to revise Wilson’s screenplay, though Kushner is called co-producer, not co-screenwriter.

Wilson’s plays, and this film, focus on the day-to-day struggles and joys of black Americans. He assumes his audiences are familiar with the larger economic, political, and social conditions shaping the lives of his characters. Indeed, most of the powerful institutions that shape life in the Hill District—and that afflict and torment Troy—are invisible in the film.

During and after World War II, many African Americans moved north to work in Pittsburgh’s steel mills, the backbone of the city’s economy from the early 1900s. (In the movie, we see the smokestacks in the distance from Troy’s house). U.S. Steel—the world's first billion-dollar company—at one time made two-thirds of the world's steel. Despite huge profits, the steel companies used brutal means to resist unionizing until the United Steelworkers union prevailed in the 1940s, winning collective-bargaining contracts and providing employees with a middle-class standard of living, which in turn made Pittsburgh prosperous. Compared with sharecropping, these were good jobs, but blacks didn’t share equally in the prosperity because they were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest, and lowest-paying jobs.

In 1950, Pittsburgh reached its population peak of 676,806, but while blacks were moving in, whites were moving out. Between 1950 and 1960, the city’s black population rose from 12.2 percent to 16.7 percent. By 1970, as the steel mills began closing and its economy flagged, Pittsburgh’s population was down to 520,117, but the black population was 20.2 percent. Despite their increasing numbers, Pittsburgh’s blacks were confined to a handful of neighborhoods because of widespread discrimination by landlords, real estate agents, and banks. In 1955, when one black family sought to move into a rental home in an all-white suburb, they found the windows broken by vandals and a note on the door, “Nigger—don’t let the sun set on you here. Your place is the Hill District. Don’t mar our town.” Such threats were not unusual.

The Hill District was among the most prosperous and culturally active black neighborhoods in the country. Its homes were close together; residents sat on porches and walked in the streets to socialize with neighbors, and looked out for each other’s children. But as the black population grew, the neighborhood became overcrowded, its apartments and houses deteriorated as landlords failed to maintain their properties and banks refused to make loans for home repairs. Whites began to refer to the area as a “slum.”

In 1943, Pittsburgh banker Richard King Mellon organized an elite group of corporate executives to form the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a kind of shadow government designed to position the city and region to prosper when the war ended. They helped elect pro-business Democrat David Lawrence as mayor in 1946, who initiated projects under the federal urban renewal program to redevelop downtown Pittsburgh, keep corporate headquarters in the city, and link the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University to business.

The Hill District became a prime target for “slum clearance,” the phrase used to justify razing the neighborhood to make way for upscale housing, convention centers, office towers, and cross-town highways. Planners called it “urban renewal” but in the nation’s ghettos, it was called “Negro removal.” 

Families like the Maxsons, who lived near the top of the Hill, were spared from the federally subsidized bulldozer. But by the early 1960s, the lower Hill District—the heart of the black community, with shops, bars, and jazz clubs—was completely razed. Ninety-five acres were torn down, forcibly displacing more than 8,000 people, 80 percent of them African Americans, and hundreds of small businesses. A cultural center that included the Civic Arena, which opened in 1961, was built in its place. In the movie Fences, Troy dies in 1963. By then, much of the Hill had disappeared. (In his play Two Trains Running, set in 1969, Wilson focuses on the decline of the Hill District in the aftermath of urban renewal).

For those familiar with American history, Fences teases us with many unspoken “What if?” scenarios. The college trying to recruit Cory was likely North Carolina A&T, an historically black college in Greensboro. (The University of North Carolina did not have any black football players until 1967.) Cory would have been a sophomore in February of 1960, when four students staged the first sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter, a movement that quickly spread throughout the South and re-energized the civil rights movement. Would Cory have become a civil rights crusader instead of a Marine?

Toward the end of Fences, we see Cory return home in 1963 to attend Troy’s funeral. The deployment of combat troops in Vietnam accelerated in 1965, and we are left to wonder if Cory would have been sent as well, where black soldiers comprised a disproportionate percentage of American casualties.

Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the connection between the plight of African Americans and the Vietnam War, viewing it as an economic and moral tragedy. In a bold and prophetic speech at New York’s Riverside Church in April 1967, King called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism. He called the war “an enemy of the poor,” and wrote, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”

King went to Memphis, where he was assassinated in 1968, to support striking African American garbage workers who were demanding better pay, working conditions, and respect. Their picket signs said, simply, “I Am A Man.” Had August Wilson not arranged for him to die in 1963, Troy Maxson might have traveled from Pittsburgh back to his native South to stand with them. 

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