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Can't Hollywood swing for the 'Fences'?

Denzel Washington is doing it on Broadway this spring. But instead of a movie version of August Wilson's classic, we get him in 'The Book of Eli' on screen. Why?

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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This April, Denzel Washington will star as a Pittsburgh sanitation worker in a Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences.’’ But starting this weekend, he’s starring in “The Book of Eli.’’ He plays some kind of post-apocalyptic knife-wielding road warrior in dusty rags and a scraggly beard. I wish I could report that it’s August Wilson with motorcycles and bazookas. That it’s not is aggravating.

If you want to see Washington play an actual person, it will cost you about $150 and a trip to New York. While that’s not entirely fair to the human touch he brings to his action-figure character in “The Book of Eli,’’ the disjunction doesn’t seem fair to us, either. Where is the book of Ellison? Where, for that matter, are any of the promising films to be made from hundreds of years of black writing?

All right, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man’’ is a tall order. (Then again, Paul Thomas Anderson extracted “There Will Be Blood’’ from Upton Sinclair’s seemingly unfilmable “Oil!’’) Still, an ambitious filmmaker could start with the plays of Lynn Nottage or Suzan-Lori Parks or the novels of Colson Whitehead or the stories of Z.Z. Packer, to name a few contemporary examples.

Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist’’ would make a stirring film. It’s set in the world of New York City’s elevator inspectors in the years before the civil-rights movement and focused on a black woman who does her job with a sort of sixth sense about lift mechanics. There are traces of film noir and some beautiful metaphors for the vertiginous politics of gender, race, and class. Plus it would be a chance for a youngish black actress to play a part more complicated than somebody’s wife.

But this isn’t just a highbrow lament. I would happily take a film of E. Lynn Harris’s gay melodramas or the humid erotica of Zane (one name, so many positions). Tyler Perry has been kind enough to turn his rambunctious stage shows into movies, releasing what feels like a title a month. I can’t eat that much fast food in a year.

Most people can’t. Why not more films based on Chester Himes’s books? It’s been almost 40 years since “Cotton Comes to Harlem’’ reached the screen, and nearly 20 since Bill Duke directed “A Rage in Harlem.’’ What about adapting one of his more personal novels, like his first, “If He Hollers Let Him Go’’ (1945), about racism amid the shipyards of Los Angeles? The film it became in 1968 is not worth mentioning. A better version would reveal the novel for what it truly is: a left-coast, racialized “On the Waterfront.’’

One reason that such books infrequently become films is that the movie business is fickle. The rights to a book or a play are optioned, but, for any number of reasons, a script is never completed or the production light fails to turn green.

“Fences’’ itself is such a story. It was first staged on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged garbageman still stewing over ruined dreams. The show was a big hit and ready to undergo a film adaptation in the early 1990s. The director was to be a young phenomenon named John Singleton. Jones was scheduled to play Troy (he’d won a Tony Award for the part), and Eddie Murphy was rumored to make his dramatic debut as Troy’s disappointing son.

In 1987 Paramount Pictures bought the rights for Murphy, who was 26 at the time. The movie suffered various pre-production glitches and fell apart, and there doesn’t appear to be a new version on the horizon, although that could change if the Broadway revival with Washington and Viola Davis is a success.

Many of Wilson’s plays would lend themselves to the camera’s gaze. The emotional richness of his language and the strains of history and mysticism that course through his work are a challenge. But there’s a vigorous 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,’’ with Charles S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard, that suggests what a smart, inspired filmmaker could do. For what it’s worth, Wilson, who died five years ago, adapted the script himself.

Films about the lives of famous black Americans are far more plentiful - in part because they’re comparatively easier to produce. Even when made with artistry and ideas, as Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X’’ and Michael Mann’s “Ali’’ were, a biopic tends to rely on a well-established formula that accommodates almost any life, with all due respect to the achievements of the person who lived it. It’s relatively easy to get an audience to see a film about an important leader or beloved entertainer. The commercial prospects of “Ray’’ are much more promising than a work of science fiction taken from Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.’’

The recent success of “Dreamgirls’’ could have made a difference. Producers had been trying to adapt the Broadway musical for the screen since the 1980s. The final product was mediocre, but the hunger for it was real. Audiences wanted it in a way that rarely happens for movie musicals, let alone films with predominantly black casts and that much pomade.

Despite earning $100 million and an Oscar for Jennifer Hudson, the movie has gone without a followup. No “Purlie,’’ no new version of “The Wiz.’’ “Dreamgirls’’ enthusiasts had to settle for more action movies, “urban’’ comedies, and other future BET BlackBusters.

Watching the “Dreamgirls’’ pandemonium firsthand, a friend’s mother began her impressions to me this way: “Not since ‘Roots’ . . .’’ She wasn’t kidding. But she was a little off base. “Roots,’’ for one thing, was an epic, weeklong television event, adapted from Alex Haley’s bestseller about slavery’s scourge within one family.

But the medium was irrelevant to her. She was talking about the sense of cultural moment. I wanted to beg to differ, but where was my counter-example?

Tyler Perry’s wild success doesn’t culminate in across-the-board pride. With the right stars and the right movie - Denzel Washington in “Fences,’’ say - you can imagine people like my friend’s mother having that “Not since ‘Roots’ ’’ feeling.

Either way, outside a movie theater, the black experience is rich and complicated and diverse. Inside, at this point, it feels like Perry or nothing else. Barry Jenkins made a tiny ripple with a little San Francisco romance called “Medicine for Melancholy,’’ about two straight black hipsters and their one-night stand. It didn’t make it very far around the country (you can now download or rent it), and I like it, but it also feels defensively alternative, as if to say, “We are so not in a Tyler Perry movie!’’ But it has mood and charm and handsome photography. It’s also based on an original script. There are hardly enough of those, regardless of the writer’s race.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of conversations with a talented, well-regarded black writer and director who’s been trying to get at least two of Toni Morrison’s novels off the ground. I don’t envy her. Adapting one of Morrison’s books is an uphill narrative battle. It’s a task that needs a visionary director to achieve liftoff.

Jonathan Demme’s film of Morrison’s 1987 novel “Beloved’’ is something of a cautionary tale. Getting the project completed became a cause of sorts for Oprah Winfrey, its star, But there was grumbling from the start about Demme’s selection. He’s white, and there were people who felt a movie of a Great Book by a black author needed a black director. (Similar arguments surrounded Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,’’ in which Winfrey made her film debut.)

“Beloved’’ was released in the fall of 1998, and was roundly dismissed, with a lot of the blame placed at Demme’s feet. It does feel piecemeal as a movie, but it’s also a more moving, more surreal adaptation than it’s given credit for being. There are a dozen ways to adapt that book, and Demme’s film was one.

In any case, Demme and Winfrey more than survived the movie’s commercial and artistic failure. Making movies from great books by black authors did not. And the flap over Demme’s race raises another road block and an important question. There are plenty of books by black authors to film. But are there enough black directors interested in writing and shooting them?

Winfrey hasn’t given up. She used her good name to get a so-so adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God’’ on ABC, starring Halle Berry. The same network also aired a supremely well-acted version of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.’’ I imagine televising made it easier to keep the original cast of the Broadway revival intact. But as good as that movie was and as surprisingly timeless as Hansberry’s play remains, “A Raisin in the Sun’’ now feels comfortably distant. Its primary gathering point - a small Chicago living room - is not unlike other television living rooms. Its characters, despite their striving for upward mobility, feel rooted firmly in a familiar past.

I felt the same way about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Secret Life of Bees,’’ which was set in the Jim Crow South and based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s not a work of black literature (Kidd and her heroine are white). But the movie breathed touching human life into the book’s old archetypes of African-American women. And yet I found myself longing to see characters on contemporary terms.

That curiosity was satisfied to a large extent last year by “Precious,’’ which, as the complete title is eager to announce, is based on the novel “Push’’ by Sapphire. The name was changed so as not to be confused with another movie called “Push.’’ It feels first like superfluous subtitling (in line with the too-muchness of its heroine’s life), but it also doubles as a distress signal. There are so few current movies about black lives based on black books that this movie needs to remind us not that it isn’t based on a true story (although it could be) but on a chilling work of fiction. The full title serves a promotional purpose: Dammit, we made a movie based on a book written by a black author!

On one hand, that’s silly: What bearing does an announcement of the movie’s provenance have on the experience of watching that movie? On the other, it’s important. In the rest of the movie universe, films adapted from novels and plays by white authors (Shakespeare, Dickens, and Neil Simon aside) don’t announce their source material. Picture it, “Ryan: Based on the Novel ‘Up in the Air’ by Walter Kirn.’’ So “Precious,’’ which is more or less an independent film, brings with it a degree of politics. “Dear Hollywood,’’ it argues, “we will keep on with these extra-strength titles until more adaptations are made.’’

The makers of “Precious’’ might be on to something. Winfrey has been the film’s biggest supporter (early last year, she and Perry signed on as executive producers). And most of the movies she’s starred in or officially backed began as books. Given her lucrative affinity for literature, imagine how effective she’d be as a proponent of film adaptations. Oprah, how would you feel about starting a book-to-movie club?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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