Is 'Fences' A True Story? August Wilson's 1987 Play Hits The Big Screen

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are emerging as frontrunners in this year's Oscar acting races with Fences, a new drama Washington also directed. The film, which tells the story of an African American family living in 1950s Pittsburgh, struggling to find their way, feels brutally real. Troy (Washington), is a garbage collector still bitter from the end of his baseball career, who finds slivers of happiness and redemption through his marriage to Rose (Davis).  Fences tells a story that many American families can relate to, but that doesn't mean that Fences is a true story. In fact, Fences is based on a play by the same name from renowned playwright August Wilson. 

Wilson's Fences first debuted in 1987, and promptly won a Tony Award for Best Play, a Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. (Over twenty years later, Fences would earn another Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Revival.) Given the play's success, it shouldn't surprise you to know that the film is a very faithful adaptation of the text. In fact, Wilson's name is the only one with a writing credit on the film. So, Fences isn't so much based on reality as it is centered on the original play.

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When Wilson wrote Fences, he wasn't basing it off a true story. That said, the author intended for his play to provide a truthful lens through which to view African Americans, as he noted in an interview with The Paris Review. "Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans," Wilson said in the 1999 interview. Part of the importance of Fences, Wilson explained, was that it was fiction — it was art. "Blacks see the content of their lives being elevated into art. They don't always know that it is possible, and it's important for them to know that," he added. 

Wilson died in at the age of 60 in 2005 — five years before Washington starred in the Fences revival and more than 10 years before the play was adapted for the big screen. But it's clear that his presence loomed large on the set of the film. According to NPR, Wilson was adamant that Fences not get the feature film treatment unless a black director was at the helm — Washington more than fits the bill. And, with a script that has been kept, largely, in tact, it's almost as if Wilson himself had been involved in the production. 

Whether or not Fences rings as true onscreen as it does on the stage remains to be seen.

Images: Paramount Pictures


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