The Poetry of Everyday Speech

Fences a film by Denzel Washington.  Screenplay by August Wilson.  With Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo.

When I was a young man growing up in Pittsburgh, I wanted to be the writer who put the city on the map.  I read Theodore Dreiser’s Newspaper Days; he’d spent some time in the city, and lamented the fact that no great realist had grown up there to take the measure of the place.  I figured to be that person.  I have now officially failed in that attempt, though four of my novels are set there.  But if you had told me that there would be two[1] great Pittsburgh writers from my generation, and that they would both be African American, and that their work would chronicle Homewood and the Hill District, the city’s two black ghettos, I would have shaken my head in disbelief.

John Edgar Wideman was the first great Pittsburgh writer I came across.  When I heard he had written a Homewood Trilogy, I assumed (this was one of the more racist assumptions of my life) that it was a work of literary realism, something akin to Studs Lonigan.  I was astonished to find that it was a sophisticated postmodern work, and that Wideman was one of the best writers of his generation, though I have a special fondness for the Homewood books, since they are set within walking distance of the house I grew up in.  I used to walk to Homewood to get my hair cut until my father decided, when I was about fourteen, that it had become too dangerous.  Wideman showed me a side of the neighborhood I’d never seen.

I feel the same way about the great August Wilson, author of the play and screenplay for Fences.  I had literally never heard of him—I don’t follow the theater—when my son and I were in New York for a visit and got tickets for a matinee one Sunday—we went to the play because tickets were available—and saw Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, one of Wilson’s best.  I sat in that theater open-mouthed when I realized it was about the Hill District, a place considered so dangerous for whites that I’d never set foot in it.  I remember only once driving through it.[2]  What a marvelous play.  It made me proud to be from the city.

August Wilson, as it turns out, was not a product of the city’s schools.  He dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, after encountering extreme prejudice at Central Catholic, briefly trying a vocational school, then dropping out of Gladstone High School[3] when he was accused of plagiarism.  His real education came at the Carnegie Library, which eventually gave him an honorary diploma, the only time they’ve ever done that.  And he got a large part of his education—as is obvious in all his plays—in the streets.


Fences is about a garbage man and former Negro league baseball player named Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), and the thing you notice immediately about this film is that it’s a symphony of voices, in an obscene and vastly entertaining African American dialect.  I had a Shakespeare professor once who said that he thought the best way to produce Shakespeare plays is on the radio, they were meant to be declaimed, and though I don’t feel quite that way about Fences, I do think the language, the lilt of the storytelling, is a major pleasure of this film.  Just hearing Maxson talk with his sidekick Bono (a marvelous Stephen Henderson) about almost nothing was worth the price of admission.  Wilson spent his early career writing on paper napkins and notebooks in bars and cigar stores, and he absorbed the poetry of everyday speech.  It’s all over the place, if you listen for it.

Maxson is not, even from the start, an admirable or lovable character.  He’s a braggart about his baseball career, claims that he and other guys in the Negro Leagues were better than a lot of guys who made the majors (he mentions Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, two pretty good ballplayers); he’s sensitive about the fact that he never got a chance in the majors, as well he should be (though his wife points out that he was too old when he would have been ready); he’s strict and mean with his son to the point of abuse, and he apparently acquired his house because of a wartime injury to his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), one of the mentally defective savants in the Wilson oeuvre.  He drinks too much and hangs out at a neighborhood bar.  Eventually we find out that he’s been spending a little too much time with a woman named Alberta.

Until then our major quarrel with him was the way he treated his sons.  A son named Lyons by an earlier marriage (Russell Hornsby) comes by to borrow ten bucks to support himself in his effort to become a jazz musician—he doesn’t want to haul trash like his father—and Troy acts as if he asked for a thousand.  His current son Cory’s offense is that he neglects his chores and has quit his job at the A&P to play high school football.  He’s apparently a real prospect; there’s a recruiter from somewhere in North Carolina who wants to sign him to a letter of intent.  Maxson unaccountably won’t hear of signing such a letter.  He doesn’t think sports will do anything for his son (he has his own experience to go on), though his wife argues that things have changed, there are ballplayers in the majors, there are black players on college teams.  Cory himself, played by the magisterial Jovan Adepo, says that his father won’t let him play because he’s afraid his son will surpass him.  There seems to be something to that.

But the moral center of this movie is Maxson’s wife Rose (Viola Davis, in a major role that is finally worthy of her talents).  She loves her husband and has stood by him, though she also stands up for Cory, even for Lyons.  She knows her husband is stubborn and hard-headed.  But it is when Troy crosses a line with Alberta (a line, admittedly, that many men have crossed) that we see into the depths of her character.  She stands up for herself as a wronged wife as few women ever have.  Wilson gives Rose the strongest speeches in his play, and Viola Davis is worthy of them.  Her performance is riveting, deeply emotional, and often stomach wrenching.

Troy has one great speech himself, when he talks about his relationship with his own father and how he met Bono, how he got to Pittsburgh, how he became a ballplayer.  The incredible difficulty of that life, and the history of racism that it traces, almost make Troy into a sympathetic character, and at least help us understand him.  We can forgive him for everything except the way he treats his son.  I’ve heard a fair number of stories about hardheaded, stubborn, difficult African American fathers.  Troy stand pretty high in that pantheon.

I have now seen four marvelous movies in a row, four of the year’s best.  I agree that La La Land is a great achievement by a young and talented writer and director, and that it has great performances by its two stars.  It’s also a piece of fluff, with a big nothing at its heart.  Manchester by the Sea is a masterful drama about a man who has gone through hell, and is beautifully told and acted, but when all is said and done its central character isn’t nearly as substantial as the lead characters in both Moonlight and Fences.  I haven’t agreed every year that an African American film was Oscar worthy, but this year, if Moonlight and Fences don’t get major recognition, the whole system is corrupt.

Fences is certainly the best adapted screenplay—August Wilson adapting himself; it doesn’t get better than that—and there’s a host of people worthy of Best Supporting Actor.  And of Viola Davis doesn’t get an Oscar, there’s no justice in this world, and the Oscars are impossibly corrupt.

Moonlight and Fences, for my money, are the two best movies of the year.  There’s hardly a white face in either one.

[1] One could argue that Annie Dillard is a third.  She actually grew up in my neighborhood and went to the girls’ private school there.  But Dillard hardly identifies as a Pittsburgh writer, and her only book about the city is her autobiography, An American Childhood.

[2] My brother was driving me and my friend Joe Ciccchetti somewhere or other and got in the way of a streetcar that was coming the other way.  The driver stopped long enough to lean out his window and say, “If you can’t drive on the Hill, don’t drive on the Hill.”

[3] We scrimmaged Gladstone in football.  In the locker room before the scrimmage, our captain stood up and said, “There are a lot of colored players on the Gladstone team.  I think you’ll find that if you hit them hard on the first play, they’ll shy away from you for the rest of the game.”  It was all I could do to keep a straight face.