“When your daddy walked through the house he was so big he filled it up,” says Rose Maxson. “That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave some room for me.”
It’s a line that sums up a woman’s life. Late in August Wilson’s canonical 1983 play Fences, Rose finds she must come to terms with multiple decades of marriage to a man whose spirit was so grand, whose miseries ran so deep, he almost crowded her out of her own life. Fences is about a lower-class black family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the sixth in Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the 20th-century black experience. (It earned him the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes.)
That house Rose describes, the one her husband Troy’s all-consuming voice could fill to the brim with laughter, despair, flirtation, or sometimes rage, could be the theater itself. The role of Troy is so buoyant and large it almost forgets to leave room onstage for anybody else. Fences is the story of a marriage, but really it’s the story of a man who feels he’s been cheated out of the best things in life, and whose despair over that fact cheats the people around him of theirs. It’s to the play’s point that everyone in his life — his wife most of all — should come to feel like moons in his orbit.
In the hands of a brilliant actress, however, the role of Rose Maxson is just as large and alive as that of her husband, but more interior: She’s alive to us in a way that perhaps she isn’t to him. Viola Davis, who stars opposite Denzel Washington in the new film adaptation of the play, is the kind of performer who can make that work. She’s a master architect of inner life. And in Fences, she meets Washington — who directed, and who plays Troy with precisely the breadth and grandeur Wilson’s words imagined — blow for blow. Just as she did opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt (her first Oscar nomination), and again opposite the entire cast of The Help (her second). It seems inevitable that on the morning of January 24, she’ll receive her third nomination — and there’s a strong chance that when she hops into her limo on February 26 to ride to L.A.’s Dolby Theatre, she’ll be coming to finally collect her first Oscar. It would be an award for Best Supporting Actress for the same role that earned her a Tony just six years ago — for lead actress.
Davis is angling, not for the first time, toward a spotlight that has for years eluded her. (Streep once joked Davis was “a newcomer at 45.”) “I wanted a role to reflect the full scope of my talent,” said Davis last year on a “For Your Consideration” panel before an audience of Television Academy voters. “I was tired of being the third girl from the left, feeling like I was jumping up behind Meryl Streep or a Julianne Moore, saying, ‘I’ve been doing this for 12 years, I’m playing a maid, I’ve got two lines.’” She was campaigning on behalf of her turn as Annalise Keating on the popular ABC/Shondaland soap How to Get Away With Murder, for which she became the first black woman to win Best Lead Actress in the history of the Emmys. She began her acceptance speech with a quote from Harriet Tubman: “In my mind, I see a line.” It’s a line between white and black women — a nod, for Davis, toward conversations about race and gender in Hollywood that overlook the specific challenge of being a woman of color.
For the record, Davis is a fine supporting actress; one of the best. Nowhere was this more clear, in recent memory, than in Suicide Squad, a movie in which, despite the world ending, the single gnarliest thing we see is Davis eating a steak. Picture that: Even with Jared Leto’s antics and studio interference crashing down around the movie on all sides, Davis emerged not only unscathed but cooler, by simple virtue of the fact she’d never before gotten to play the slick villain in a vapid superhero movie and relished the chance. It’s the little things.
I first remember seeing Davis in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002), a Julianne Moore–led melodrama set in the ’50s and styled after Douglas Sirk melodramas from that era. She played Moore’s maid. It wasn’t a lazily written rehash of the worst tropes from that era, mind you — Haynes aimed to examine those archetypes, not merely reproduce them. But for Davis, it still essentially added up to playing a maid. And play it she did. Davis’s essential talent is for making the audience wonder. In her gestures, in the sadness she’s able to wield on her face and carry in her body, she finds ways to suggest fully-lived human beings, however humble, with their own lives, ideas, questions, and experiences.
I would see Davis again and again on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, watching her develop an occasional but memorable recurring role as Donna Emmett, an attorney known to square off with the best D.A. in the franchise, Alexandra Cabot (played by Stephanie March). Davis was a side character on a TV show full of them; she of course took the role and ran with it. Her character’s toughness on witnesses, her impatience for the D.A.’s high jinks, and her rapid-fire comebacks were almost too good for the role. You’d begin to wonder about her: How did she become seemingly the only black defense attorney in SVU’s fictional New York? But even then, the rough edges of her performance signalled everything you needed to know.
Donna Emmett came immediately to mind when, in the fourth episode of How to Get Away With Murder’s first season, we see Davis’s character Annelise do what a woman does at the end of her day: remove her wig, unclip her eyelash extensions, rub off her makeup, and harangue her husband about a dick pic on a dead girl’s phone. Is it strange that this felt almost revolutionary? “Before I got the role,” she recounted on that Emmy panel last year, “I said, ‘Shonda, Pete, Betsy, I’m not gonna do this unless I can take my wig off.’” It was a matter of representation. “I wanted to see a real woman on TV. I wanted to see who we are before we walk out the door in the morning and put on the mask of acceptability — ‘Please see me as pretty, please love me.’”
It’s the kind of baring-open Davis is known for. Why is it only on television? Because TV, and theater, are ahead of the curve. Fences is expected to change that. Unlike in The Help (for which she was nominated as Best Actress), she’s not vying as a lead — but she’s also not a maid. Unlike on TV, she has the poetry of August Wilson to abet her. Fences is no How to Get Away With Murder; its success does not rest squarely on her shoulders. But she’s the only woman here — literally in a league of her own, in a film whose power depends on her ability to conjure a woman who good fortune has largely ignored.
In Fences, Rose’s own status, slightly to the side of Troy, is part of the point — it’s the central tension of the play. Troy and Rose have a son, and much of the familial pain imagined by Washington and Wilson, who adapted the movie’s screenplay himself, is the pain of manhood. Fences is to a significant extent about the transfer of manhood through generations: Troy’s own troubled relationship to his father manifests itself in his ties to his two sons. Washington’s direction, working off a script that largely reproduces the play to a T, doesn’t have much to add to the proceedings. (His acting, however, is phenomenal.) Mostly, Washington’s camera gives much-needed room to his and Davis’s performances. From up close, we watch the actors’ faces, and see the words as they continuously tumble out of their mouths. That doesn’t make up for some of the lapses that grow more egregious in the transfer from stage to screen — namely, the relative lack of curiosity about Rose. This only becomes more obvious as the movie goes on, with new motherhood creeping into the story unexpectedly after Troy cheats on Rose with a woman who bears him a child and then dies. Rose raises that child — a baby girl.
It’s a chance at a life for a woman who, until this point, seemed confined to a small house that was the realm of men. But the script lays out its priorities by letting a whole era of motherhood get rubbed down into a montage and a flash-forward. The contours of that time in her life remain underexamined. Who is Rose without Troy? What does she love, what does she dream of? Her performance is almost to the film’s detriment, inviting questions it isn’t prepared to answer. Perhaps you can chalk that up to practice: she’s good at it because, to make it this far, she’s had to be.
Rose is a woman on the sidelines — which, perhaps, is why Davis is expertly able to bring the role to life. In the scene that Oscar voters will undoubtedly have on their minds when they cast their ballots, Davis becomes all pain and snot and tears, as if all her past and present wounds had opened up and the chaos of her inner life were oozing out before our eyes. “My gift is exposing,” she told The New Yorker recently. “Exposing mess — the humanity, the vulnerability of what it means to be human. I think that that is what acting is about, anyway.” What Fences exposes is the folly of a talent this raw, and this rare, struggling to find adequate parts in Hollywood, being relegated to best friends and maids. That’s the situation of most of our best actresses; race makes it more acute. As for Fences, it’s anchored by the performance of a leading lady who has long since arrived — and who will now, I hope, be given her due.