For his third film as a director, Denzel Washington is tackling August Wilson’s Fences, a gripping portrait of a black family grappling with regret and acceptance in 1950s segregated Pittsburgh. It’s material Washington knows well — he and costar Viola Davis are reprising their roles as husband and wife Troy and Rose Maxson from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, which earned both actors Tony Awards.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilson, who died in 2005, was adamant that any potential film adaptation of the production should have a black director at the helm. “I’m sure Scorsese could have done Schindler’s List and Spielberg probably could have done a great job on Goodfellas, but it’s about more than race, it’s culture,” Washington says. “I know what hair smells like when it’s being fried on Sunday mornings before church. That’s not a race thing, that’s a culture thing. I’m glad we are following his wishes.”
So is Davis, who previously worked with Washington as her director in the 2002 film (and Washington’s directorial debut) Antwone Fisher. A decade later she says Washington’s ability to motivate his cast has only gotten better. “He understands the actor,” she says. “There is no sludging through scenes. It’s activated, it’s active, it’s complicated, it’s honest, it’s moving and it’s funny. It’s all of those things because of him.”
Washington’s biggest concern with adapting Wilson’s work for the stage was to maintain what made the play great in the first place. “If there were 25,000 words in that 2010 version, and if there are 25,000 words in this version, 24,900 are August Wilson’s. I added a couple others here and there just to make the story work,” says Washington. “The man wrote a masterpiece. The thing I’m most proud of is that I didn’t screw it up.”
It helped that he reunited most of the cast from the recent stage revival on his Pittsburgh set, including Stephen Henderson, who according to Washington has done almost all of Wilson’s plays, and Mykelti Williamson, who plays Troy’s younger brother Gabriel. “When Mykelti Williamson did Forrest Gump (Williamson played Bubba Blue in the Oscar winner) I was sold on him,” says Washington. “You’ll see, he just breaks your heart.”
Wilson would be proud.
Fences opens in theaters on Christmas Day.