(AllHipHop Lifestyle) Already having won a total of 17 awards and nominated for an additional 25, the pressure would seem to be off for “Fences” director and lead actor Denzel Washington, but in speaking with him, nothing could be further from the truth.
“ The reception has been tremendous critically,” said Washington on the early African American grassroots response, fueled by many strategic early screenings, but will it be enough to boost overall ticket sales come December 25th? For Washington, “Fences” has long been about having the proverbial “back” of African American playwright August Wilson, who wrote the original “Fences” as the last of ten connected plays before his death in 2005. For Denzel as a motivated producer with a nine picture deal from paramount, “Fences” real success lives and dies in it’s final box office returns. “This is a fifteen year project of mine,” stated Washington, adding emphatically: “I’m going to take care of August Wilson and nothing is going to get in my way.”
To that task, while Denzel revels in the fact that “Fences” has a universal appeal, with one viewer in Poland believing that August Wilson was “Polish” due to “Fences” winning portrayal of father son issues, when it comes to the Oscar Award Winning actor’s vision for the film, his desires are decidedly more specific.
“I have a nine picture deal to produce the other nine films. But if this one is not a success then we (black Americans) can’t talk about what roles are. In the nine plays that I’m producing there’s at least 100 or 150 (African American) roles or whatever. And we can’t complain about a lack of roles when there’s roles from one of the greatest writers in American history ready to go,” stated Washington of Wilson, adding with no small degree of exasperation: “it’s called show business. It oughta be called business dough because the next show will be predicated and determined by the business we do here.”
August Wilson wrote the original “Fences” as the last installment in a series of ten plays called “The Pittsburgh Cycle” with each play in the cycle dramatizing the triumphs and difficulties of being born Black in America on a decade by decade basis. It is Washington’s dream to see all of the plays in the cycle realized via his production shingle. Before Wilson died, mainstream Hollywood approached him about adapting “Fences” as a movie, but Wilson famously declined stating that the play could not be given it’s proper due by a director who was not of African American ancestry. “I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture, “ explained Wilson before his death, continuing: “ White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.”
In respect of this strong belief in cultural authenticity, Washington insisted on “Fences” being shot in the backyard of Wilson’s literal childhood community. “It was like being home for me,” said Washington of his colorful and intimate Pittsburgh experience. “ Mr. Greenlee, who lived behind us and couldn’t hear, he always wanted to make coffee for me. A woman on the corner made her house – she was watching me – she made her house a quiet place of prayer for me and I would go in there when things were just getting overwhelming, ” stated Washington, adding: “ some folks would just come out with their lawn chairs like they were watching television. They didn’t want to miss anything.”
However while the local population went out of their way to support Washington, they also never let him forget his responsibility to get the portrayal right and to make it count: “ There was one woman in particular, even before we started shooting,” said Washington. “I met her and I came out and I said “oh, you know, thank you for coming out,” and she said ‘we’ve been watching you for a long time.’ I said, ‘well pray for me,’ and she said, ‘Denzel, I’ve been praying for you for 35 years, my family and I.’ She said, ‘We’ve been watching you. We know how hard it is,’ remembered Washington adding ruefully, “you just never know – I even remember my mother saying that. ‘You just never know who’s praying for you.’ But I needed all those prayers and I needed all of that support. Well we all( the whole cast and crew) needed it.”
Lastly, Washington made no bones this week about the importance of buying a ticket come Christmas day and making it clear to Hollywood and the greater world community that something larger is at stake if “Fences” continues to grow only as a critical hit versus a financial one.
“it’s not for me. It’s not just for me. But we can’t complain about what’s not being done if we don’t show up….not only is it important for us to go out and support because it’s a good story – and I’m not just saying it because I directed it – but it’s important for us to go out and support so that we can continue to tell all of his stories.”
As a larger point on controlling who we are and how our different stories can be told better, I think that most all Americans can agree that Washington has a very very good point.
“Fences” starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson and Jovan Adepo opens in theaters nationwide on December 25, 2016.