Eye on Film: Chopping It Up With Denzel Washington

Fences is one of the most celebrated creative properties ever gleaned from within the American experiment. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, it has enjoyed decades of acclaim as a Broadway play. Now, Denzel Washington brings this incredible piece of work to the big screen, and with an incredible cast to boot.

There have been attempts to bring Fences to the big screen for decades. However, August Wilson had always insisted upon having an African American bring the play to the cinema. Reprising the same role he played in the 2010 Broadway revival, Denzel himself stars as Troy Maxon while Viola Davis plays his wife Rose. Though its release date isn’t until Christmas Day, Fences has already gotten a great deal of critical acclaim.

The Shadow League recently spoke with Denzel, who emphasized the movie’s broad appeal and the universal issues it addresses.

“The reception has been amazing, critically,” said Washington. “But even more than the nominations and rewards that we have been winning already, just the response from the audience. People ask ‘What do you want people to get from this film?’ and I always tell them that it depends what you bring to it. I’ve been doing Q&As around the world and there a lot of son and father issues across color lines. One guy stood up and said ‘I didn’t know August Wilson was Polish’, because of the relationship. The story is specifically African American, but the relationship issues are universal.”

Fences takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and centers on the Maxon family – Troy, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (played by Jovan Adepo). Troy is filled with three lifetimes worth of anger and regret due to being passed over for his dreams, and the struggles of being a black man charged with maintaining a homestead with meager earnings and no societal respect.

“Troy’s bitterness about what didn’t happen for him, and his inability to deal with that, is visited upon his family,” said Denzel. “The fact is his son and mother are trying to do something about it. He’s being recruited by colleges. But Troy’s bitterness about what happened to him just crushes everyone’s spirit around him and makes for some bad decisions as he moves outside of his family.”

Shooting Fences in Pittsburgh was very important for Washington.

“It was like being at home for me. I knew I wanted it to be in a place where August was from,” he explained. “But when we got to the neighborhoods and got to meet the people, like Mr. Greenlee, who couldn’t hear but always wanted to make coffee for me, or a woman who lived on the corner who made her house a quiet place of prayer for me. I would go in there when things were getting overwhelming or just to take a breath. Some folks would come out with their lawn chairs like they were watching television. They didn’t want to miss anything. But, there was one woman in particular who I met before we even started shooting. She said, ‘Thanks for coming out, we’ve been watching you for a long time,’ and I said, ‘Well pray for me.’ She said ‘Denzel, I’ve been praying for you for 35 years. We’ve been watching you. We know how hard it is.'”

“I remember my mother saying, ‘You just never know who’s praying for you,'” he continued. “So, I needed all those prayers and I needed all that support. The people were just wonderful. We finished and I wanted to have a screening in Pittsburgh. I said I wanted to take it back where it started. I had a screening for the people of Pittsburgh as a way of saying thanks for all your support. Mr. Greenlee showed up dressed like he was going to a wedding or something. Everybody was so dressed and clean and so proud that it took place literally in their backyard.”

Though critics and fans alike are applauding the work of Denzel as a director, as well as the performances turned in by the entire cast of actors, Washington continued to hammer home the importance of audiences showing up to support this film.

“This is not just for me, we can’t complain about what’s not being done if we don’t show up,” he said. “I have a nine picture deal to produce the other nine films, but if this one is not a success then we can’t talk about what’s not happening. In the nine plays that I’m producing, there’s at least 100 to 150 roles. These are roles from one of the greatest writers in American history, ready to go. But it’s called show business, it ought to be called business show. Because the next show will be predicated upon the business we do here. So, not only is it important for us to go out and support because it’s a good story, and I’m not just saying that because I’m directing it, but it’s important for us to go out and support so that we can continue to tell all of his story. It is my plan to put out 10 films within a 10-to-15 year period from one of the greatest writers in the history of American theater.”

“I’m thanking you all in advance because I know you’re going to deliver,” Denzel continued. “It’s a film that keeps on giving. You’ll learn so much from it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn from it, and y’all gonna be mad at me a little bit but that’s okay. The absolute brilliance of Viola Davis, she will win the Academy Award this year, I’m telling you now.”

“This is not a one-off. This is a 15-year project of mine. I’m going to take care of August Wilson and nothing is going to get in my way. I’m going to tell this story and every year that I’ve been on this earth has prepared me for this moment. I promise you all that I’m going to deliver.”

Fences opened in limited theaters on December 16th and will be screen nationwide on Christmas Day. Show up and see what all the talk is about.

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