Denzel Washington’s film version of the August Wilson play “Fences” is a story nearly 30 years in the making.
The celebrated playwright won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1987 for this family drama, written while he lived in St. Paul. Wilson sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures that same year, and began working on a script. Eddie Murphy was primed to play the son of the main character, Troy Maxson, a proud former Negro Leagues baseball player who landed in prison and wound up working as a garbage collector in 1957 Pittsburgh.
But the project languished, partly because Wilson stipulated that the film, like his plays, had to be helmed by an African-American director — someone, he wrote, “who would approach my work with the same amount of passion and measure of respect with which I approach it, and who shared the cultural responsibilities of the characters.”
Wilson died in 2005 without seeing his screenplay produced. In fact, “Fences” is the first of his works to be brought to the big screen. The film seems certain to be a favorite at the Academy Awards, with nominations likely for director/star Washington and for Viola Davis as Maxson’s long-suffering wife, Rose.
“I wish so much that this had happened within August’s lifetime,” said his widow, designer and producer Constanza Romero. “But things happen when they happen. And Denzel has been the most thoughtful, sincere, talented person to make that dream come true.”
Washington confirmed recently that he has a deal with HBO to film the other nine plays in Wilson's epic, decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life.
"It's a privilege," said Washington, who will serve as executive producer of the series. "And it's my life's work right now. ... It's one of the finest things that's happened to me in my career to be asked to be the steward for one of our national treasures."
The power of the screen
Born and reared in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson lived in Minnesota from 1978 to 1990. Initially a poet, he found his voice as a playwright while scribbling at places across the Twin Cities, including Fern’s and W.A. Frost on Selby Avenue in St. Paul, and got his first professional production at nearby Penumbra Theatre.
Over the course of a quarter-century, he constructed a 10-play cycle that also includes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” about a 1920s blues singer trying to own her art and her soul; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” about a family in the 1910s trying to reunite after the privations of slavery, and “Jitney,” a 1970s-set work about urban renewal and paternal legacy that recently closed at Penumbra.
For all of Wilson’s acclaim — his name is often mentioned alongside Arthur Miller and even Shakespeare — he had a major discovery about the reach of his work in 1995. That year CBS broadcast a Hallmark-produced TV movie of his other Pulitzer winner, “The Piano Lesson,” starring Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard.
“I remember him joking that that one broadcast reached more people than all of his plays in theaters combined,” recalled Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, who staged “Fences” in St. Paul in 1990. “He knew the power of that medium, and what it would mean in sharing these great human stories that come specifically from the African-American experience.”
That broadcast quickened Wilson’s desire to get his work onto the screen. He teamed with film and theater producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Book of Mormon”) to film “Fences.” Nothing came of it, but a seed was planted.
In 2010, Rudin partnered with Washington for a much-celebrated Broadway revival of “Fences” directed by Kenny Leon, who shepherded Wilson’s last two plays to Broadway. Washington, co-star Davis and the show itself won Tony Awards.
“When August was alive, I don’t think that Denzel would’ve been ready to take it on,” said Romero. “But Denzel did this the right way. He really invested himself in it onstage and got a deep, really profound understanding of the play and the characters.”
A ‘Magnificent’ moment
Film producer Todd Black, a longtime Washington collaborator, remembers a day in the spring of 2015 when they were in Baton Rouge, La., shooting “The Magnificent Seven.” The star called him into his trailer.
“I think I’m ready to do ‘Fences,’ ” Washington told Black, who worked on both of the actor’s earlier directorial efforts, “The Great Debaters” and “Antwone Fisher.”
The two joined forces with Rudin. After the long wait, it was a quick turnaround, Black said.
“We started shooting in April and it’s coming out on Christmas Day. It helped that the screenplay was very tight.”
Using Wilson’s script, they filmed “Fences” in Pittsburgh, where the story is set, using most of the cast from the three-month Broadway run. That shared experience helped Washington go deeper, said Romero: “He’s gotten to know the characters and to find nuances and depth that’s made this a great film.”
The film is peopled with actors who have a deep understanding of the Wilson canon, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, who reprises his role as Bono, Maxson’s best friend.
“The stage work is research — or ‘pre-search’ — for the film,” said Henderson, who has been in eight of Wilson’s 10 plays. “The film allows you to be intimate, to not have to project to the back row, so you find more nuances, other types of depth.”
“Fences” could be a door opener for other Wilson plays to become movies. In fact, one project already is being teed up for HBO, his widow said. Rumors are it’s “Ma Rainey.”
Henderson said the fact that “Fences” is opening on Christmas Day means that “it’s a gift — from African-American culture to the world.”
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