I almost didn’t see Fences, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. On a hot, sticky summer night – the temperature had been forty degrees – I found that I had accidentally booked tickets for a session to Hidden Figures the following night and that the current session had entirely sold out. With nothing else to see, I changed tickets for Fences, which I’m sure will end up being one of the best cinematic surprises of 2017. The main reason I had stayed away was that most reports had suggested that this was little more than a filmed play, which is my least favourite cinematic mode. Deciding that I’d rather just see Wilson’s play if it ever came to Australia (or if I was ever in America when it was on), I wouldn’t have seen the film adaptation if I hadn’t been forced into it. Yet this is easily one of the best and deftest play to film transitions that I have seen a long time, thanks in part to the way in which Fences fits into Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, a sequence of ten plays that each examine African-American life in a different decade, tracing the entirety of the twentieth century in the process. Although I haven’t seen any of the plays, it seems as if Wilson consciously co-opts white genres and conventions from each decade and then displaces them to think about how they might address an African-American audience, making for a panoramic vision of how the black experience has been mediated over the course of the last century.
For that reason, Fences, which takes place in the 1950s, never feels like a clunky stage to screen adaptation, since it’s set during a time when there was much more continuity between cinema and theatre that there is now. From the very first scene, that continuity is part of the world of the play, which revolves around the relationships between five members of an inner-city Pittsburgh family – Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), the patriarch, who missed out on a shot at a Major League Baseball career due to an early prison sentence; Rose Lee Maxson (Viola Davis), his long-suffering wife; Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), his brother, whose experiences in the Second World War result in severe post-traumatic stress; his older son, Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby), from a previous relationship, who aspires to become a great jazz musician; and his younger son, Cory Maxson (Jovan Adepo), a budding pro footballer who forces Maxson to question what might have happened if he had managed to make it in MLB. Popping in from time to time is Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), Troy’s best friend, a mixed-race African-American who seems to be designed to fill in for what would have been designated as the role of the “mulatto” mid-century, and to offer advice to the main players in the drama without ever having much of a backstory himself.
That intense family focus makes Fences feel even more like a mid-century play adaptation – like a great lost work by Elia Kazan or Richard Brooks – just as the language of the play itself feels drawing from classical Hollywood, turning the film adaptation into something of a foregone conclusion. As some critics have observed, there’s not a great deal of alteration to the adaptation, but that’s not really necessary, since the play is already inherently cinematic. In that sense, Washington was probably the best director for the job, since he largely refrains from any token cinematic flourishes and instead uses his familiarity with the script – he and Davis starred in the 2010 Broadway Revival – to give the dialogue and action a really familiar, immediate, lived-in quality. In the process, Washington’s own tendency towards histrionics is artfully contained and contoured by the residual theatricality of the play as well, resulting in one of his very best performances. Paradoxically, within such a staged environment, he is given more room to move and space to breathe, which is perhaps why he manages to direct the transitions in Wilson’s script so well. As we move between everyday conversations and inner space, even Washington’s most extroverted moments are suffused with a kind of reflexive impotence and even his most flamboyant utterances tend to settle into an abstracted squint, just as his character continually tries and fails to escape from the brooding, chambered introspection that suffuses the entire script.
At the same time, there is something of a revisionist gesture in staging this kind of mid-century drama with African-American characters. Although Fences often recalls the plays of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, it also reminds us that these were all writers who focused on white middle-class masculinity in crisis, and who often used the visibility and presence of African-American tropes and figures as a reflection of that crisis. Appropriating that model for a black audience, Wilson provides a kind of alternative history of the African-American middle-class – or, rather, the ways in which blackness and middle-class mobility have so often been incompatible over the course of American history – making for a film that speaks peculiarly eloquently to some of the recent quandaries facing the contemporary civil rights movement.
In particular, contemporary civil rights has found itself divided on how to deal with the legacy of gangsta culture. On the one hand, gangsta culture has bled so much into the mainstream that it can be affixed to any political position, leading to absurd protest icons like Killer Mike and Run the Jewels who preach political radicalism on talk shows but still adopt fairly tired misogynist and homophobic lyrics in their songs. In a BuzzFeed article from last year, Tomi Obaro pointed out that it’s hard to really credit icons like Kanye and Kendrick as emblems of the Black Lives Matter movement (a movement started by three women) when their own lyrics still traffic in such juvenile and casually brutal misogyny. Articles like Obaro’s suggest a second, emerging tendency in civil rights discourse that seeks to interrogate gangsta culture, and the way in which it prevents a wholistic black mobility. This second tendency often finds expression in a return to the past – especially the gangsta era and the civil rights era – in an attempt to find out where that gangsta impulse first germinated, as if to figure out an alternative history in which another, more inclusive form of protest was possible.
In that sense, the historical ambit of Fences has a peculiarly pressing significance, since, as Washington seems to present it, this is the period in which the first inchoate expressions of gangsta culture started to take place, a gesture that fits with my own sense that gangsta culture is often a response to the impossibility of most African-Americans to break into middle-class legitimacy and authenticity. If you look at the lyrics of hip-hop artists like Kanye or Kendrick, there’s a continual sense that it is – paradoxically and perversely – easier for African-Americans to enter the 1% than to become middle-class citizens, leading to a kind of status anxiety in which even (or especially) the most extravagant gestures of wealth and celebrity don’t guarantee middle-class mobility, but instead just speak to the confinement of African-Americans on either side of the mainstream middle-class divide, whether as people living on the subsistence line or people enjoying massive wealth. Of course, there are many middle-class black people – Kanye is middle-class – but the pervasive equation of middle-class life with whiteness throughout American history tends to make this subject position feel like the exception that proves the rule.
Within that context, I tend to see the rampant misogyny and homophobia of gangsta rap in a bit of an ambivalent light. On its own terms, it is revolting (and I say that as a gay man). In a broader sense, though, it often feels as if this misogyny and homophobia is aspirational, a yearning for the discriminatory substructure upon which middle-class stability can subsist in the first place. In that sense, gangsta rappers offer something like the “real” of middle-class aspiration: a yearning for paternal authority at the expense of women and queerness in all its guises. More specifically, there’s a real aspiration in gangsta rap to middle-class fatherhood, and to fatherhood as the lynchpin of middle-class life. Time and again, gangsta texts – and texts about the gangsta experience – focus on the way in which this failure to achieve a middle-class fatherhood is then taken out on the next male generation, producing cycles of self-destructive masculinity that take women and queerness as collateral damage. Stranded between an unbearable past and an inconceivable future, gangsta texts therefore have a strange kind of tension to them insofar as they aspire to a mode of existence that they have already in some sense deconstructed and dismissed. By the same token, it’s not hard to see why gangsta culture appeals – somewhat paradoxically – in such a visceral fashion to precisely the white male demographic that feels disenfranchised by its deconstruction of middle-class masculinity in the first place.
Within a climate that seems more open to interrogating gangsta culture in that light, Fences often plays as a kind of myth of origins of the gangsta ethos. Set in the Eisenhower era, in the midst of the biggest middle-class boom in twentieth-century America, the characters are surrounded by a milieu in which suburban mobility is promised as never before, but just not to them. While Max may continually be reiterating that he’s provided his family with a roof over their heads, the truth is that he only has his house in the first place because he used most of the payout that his brother received after the Second World War. As a result, the house already feels like a theatrical space, in which Max performs a version of middle-class stability that he doesn’t really possess and couldn’t really possess, especially at this point in time. Of course, all middle-class life is performative, but the radical exclusion of the film’s characters from even the illusion of a plausible performance works perfectly to both contain and intensify Washington’s histrionic style, as Max strives to imbue his middle-class paternalism with a realism that it is never going to possess. As the film proceeds, his efforts to erect the titular fence around the perimeter of his house works beautifully to articulate this need to consolidate paternal authority and property ownership in the face of white aspirations that are doomed to disappointment, continually trying and failing to erect the contours of middle-class life.
Yet the fence is not the only way in which Max articulates these yearnings either. With the vocabulary of the civil rights era still around the corner, he often finds himself forced into inchoate expressions of frustration and resentment that as yet have no official or public outlet. Just as the theatricality creates a sense of constriction, so it turns speech into a highly plastic, physical action – a version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. called “signifyin’” – as Max seems to be on the verge of glimpsing a new language to expressing emasculation and disenfranchisement at the hands of white America. Time and again, he breaks into monologues and rants that feel drawn from jazz and blues but that also exceed those earlier forms, as if the script were seeking out the first, fugitive impulses of what would later become freestyling or hip-hop. As a kind of myth of gangsta culture, then, Fences discovers the earliest gangsta gestures arising out of the way in which African-Americans were excluded from the boom of middle-class paternal stability in the wake of the Second World War. Totally inadequate to the role of fatherhood in some ways and over-compensating in others, Max exudes an untimely masculinity that always seems to arrive on the scene a little too late to deal with all the roles and responsibilities that are expected of it, and that’s very much the pathos and agony of gangsta rap as a whole as well.
That untimely masculinity is clearest in the fact that Max was prevented from achieving a proper MLB career by his prison sentence, the trauma that drives the film as a whole. But it also builds towards a shocking conclusion in which Rose discovers that Max is once again going to be a father – to another woman – and that she is going to have to raise the child, despite the fact that she is now in her late fifties. In the single most powerful moment in the film, a brutal monologue from Rose nails the horror and trauma of realising that the vestiges of middle-class life have been an illusion and that she has been displaced from the regular nuclear succession of children and grandchildren in the way that she always feared, as she gradually resigns herself to taking care of the new child, who feels more like her granddaughter than her stepdaughter. As Max loses interest in turn, their marriage is divested of any residual legitimacy, as Rose finds herself unable to believe in even the most formal, impersonal claims to marital obedience that motivated her to remain faithful to Max during the most difficult years of their relationship.
In a powerful twist, then, the rise of gangsta culture is attributed to the exclusion of the African-American population from marriage – the middle-class institution par excellence – and, more importantly, the way in which marriage manages to naturalise all the misogyny and homophobia that remain so naked within the gangsta impulse. Accordingly, the third act of the film almost entirely displaces the question of marriage to focus on maternity and motherhood, while any sense of the agon between father and sons is displaced to focus on the next generation, as if paternal authority weren’t stabilized enough to sustain the kinds of father-son standoffs that mobilized Miller, O’Neill and Williams. By the end, Max doesn’t even have the kind of presence needed to produce either bathos or pathos, as the family gathers to acknowledge the social forces dispersing him more than his character in itself: “Your Daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t and at the same time he wanted you to be everything that he was.” By this point, all the men have gone their separate ways anyway, leaving Rose to raise her stepdaughter alone, with the result that the final note of the film is the extent to which women serve as collateral damage for this father-son displacement, recalling Zora Neale Thurston’s comment that women are the mule of the world.
For all that it captures the earliest flickers of a language of emasculation, then, Fences never presents that language as redemptive or even cathartic. In fact, the film goes so far as to suggest two timelines and languages of protest – the language of gangsta and the language of civil rights – and while it may concede that they are connected it remains strongly reserved about the aims and ambitions of the latter. If anything, Wilson and Washington present older African-American modes – especially blues – as more robust and community-building, with the film concluding as Cory strives to recall a blues number that Max taught him, which was handed down to Max by his father in turn. Aspiring to a middle-class white existence that has already in some sense destroyed him, there is something strangely contemporary about Max, and about Wilson’s vision, even as it seeks the origins of the present moment in the past. Framing aspiration as a theatrical and artificial experience, Fences then refuses to naturalise that experience, or fully translate it into cinema, drawing all the uncomfortable contradictions around the representation of contemporary African-American life into brilliant and challenging relief.