This powerfully moving film had a profoundly resonant impact on me because I could relate to the storyline in unexpected ways.
I am a middle-aged white writer living in Seattle WA that walks dogs for much of my income, in the year 2016 (nearly 2017). How could I possible have anything in common with a fictional portrait of a middle-aged black male (we’re both exactly 53 years old) that now works as a driver in 1961 Pittsburgh PA, two years before I was born, while lamenting his lost dreams as a rising baseball player in the pre-Civil Rights era?
A few things, actually. I also feel haunted by unrealized professional potential, and I feel my life has been redeemed by marriage to a very supportive woman, much like the character of Rose (heartbreakingly portrayed by Viola Davis), whom the lead character Troy (Denzel Washington) claims is the only thing that makes his life worth living.
I won’t give anything more away for those that haven’t seen the play or the film, but from there Troy exhibits behavioral reactions to his situation that are the exact opposite of mine, so my empathy for his plight was limited.
However, I was still moved to tears several times. But I didn’t leave the theater depressed or sad. Rather, it was rather cathartic, which is the hallmark of both great cinema and great literature.
My response to a film that normally wouldn’t even be on my pulpy radar illustrates how a writer can use language and characterization to make people and places accessible and relatable to as wide an audience as possible, without sacrificing any of the narrative’s core integrity.
"I Ain't Got to Like You..."
Director Denzel retained the essence of the play because he used the perfect blueprint for the film adaptation: an original screenplay penned by playwright Wilson before his death in 2005. The play itself was first performed in 1983 and in 1987 it won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
Listening to the naturalistic if poetic rhythm of the dialogue between Troy and all the man characters – included his bests friend whom he met in prison, his two estranged sons by two different women, his brain-wounded WW2 vet brother, and especially his wife Rose – was itself an instructive pleasure, recommended for anyone that wants to make their own dialogue sing.
But the most useful takeaway for me and for any aspiring author, I think, is Wilson’s ability to transform common human tragedy into transcendent art, without sugar-coating any of the harsh edges that make Troy such a complexly constructed, sometimes off-putting, yet oddly sympathetic character despite his flaws and foibles.
It takes both skill and sensitivity as an author to uplift the spirits of countless strangers even while spotlighting the darker side of humanity.
As 2017 looms with all of its unexpected challenges, writers and artists of every stripe would be wise to heed August Wilson’s call for unity through universal struggles and triumphs, since, as Troy himself says in the play, “You have to take the crooked with the straight.”
Regardless of private or global strife – in fact because of it - this is why many writers continue to write, and why readers continue to read.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO