“Fences,” directed by Denzel Washington, arrives borne of prestigious origins. The screenplay is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the late playwright August Wilson, and the 2010 Broadway revival starred Washington and Viola Davis in the roles they play in the film, with each earning a Tony Award for Best Actor and Actress. The performances are some of the best to be seen on film in this or any year.
Washington hews closely to the play in the film adaptation, cutting hardly anything, which makes the film a challenging watch — it’s a densely packed and wordy two and a half hours. Due to its stage-bound genesis, it’s contained to the home of Troy (Washington) and wife Rose (Davis), and the backyard is where Troy spins his yarns and the greatest familial dramas play out. Washington makes subtle cinematic choices that liberate the script from its theatrical DNA. The camera slowly tracks in on Troy as he rattles off another tall tale, anecdote, or rant. The camera often angled slightly below him, he becomes the larger-than-life character that he sees himself as — an over-confident raconteur with a big chip on his shoulder.
Troy is the son of a sharecropper who ran away from home as a teenager, found himself in jail for robbery, tried to play major league baseball and ended up a Pittsburgh trash collector. He sees the world as out to get him, and as a black man in the early 20th century, these are plain facts. He has been subject to powerful sociological forces that have held him back in life, which he sees with open, cynical eyes — starting with his opening salvo, a complaint that black men are not employed as garbage truck drivers, only collectors. He fears the same treatment for his sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo),
who have enjoyed the fruits of his labor, and are pursuing their passions of music and football.
Washington hurtles onto the screen in a typhoon of words; it’s obvious that as a performer, he delights in Wilson’s colloquial, expressive language. It’s almost too much to take in as a viewer, but after Washington firmly establishes Troy as a character — his personal history and relationship with Rose, his embittered world view, as well as his own flaws and vices — he allows the film to unfold visually.
Against Washington’s force of nature performance, Davis quietly creeps in and steals the whole show (it seems he’s happy to have her do so). As the steadfast, bemused wife who patiently endures such a big personality for a husband, she finally reaches a breaking point, and Davis’ sheer raw emotion on screen is vividly riveting, and establishes what we already knew: that she’s one of the greatest performers of her generation.
It’s a proud film — celebrating the work of one of the greatest African-American playwrights and two of the most history-making African-American actors of our time, while wrestling with the often complicated evolution of black men in America, who have had to reconcile individual choices against unfair hierarchical systems, racism and prejudice.
In context, it’s a remarkable piece, a deft exploration of race and society through a personal story. Furthermore, the two lead performances are stunningly complex and deeply human achievements from two of the finest actors working today.
DIRECTED BY: Denzel Washington
STARRING: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williams, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: B+
RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes