As a potential film project, August Wilson’s Fences has been kicking around for a while. There was even talk of comedian Eddie Murphy making his “serious” big screen debut in a since abandoned version. But because Wilson insisted that the material be handled by a director of color, Hollywood had a hard time fulfilling his demands. Thus, a Tony award winning masterwork which also earned the coveted Pulitzer prize lay dormant–until now.
Leave it to box office heavyweight and two time Oscar winner Denzel Washington to do Wilson justice and deliver a near definitive version of the play. Yes, it still feels a bit stagy and never really “opens up” successfully, but that doesn’t matter. With the talent on display and the performances they deliver, Fences is one of 2016’s defining movie moments. It’s a reminder that, sometimes, the words can be as important as who is saying them–maybe even more so.
Washington plays Wilson’s domineering father figure, a failed baseball player turned trash collector named Troy Maxson. At one time, he was good enough for the big leagues, but the institution of racism and the lingering after effects of a bad decision in his youth prevented his rise. So now he’s bitter, and to make matter worse, his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) has become a very talented high school football player. There’s a chance for a scholarship, but Troy is dead set against his son’s involvement with sports.
Also in the household are Viola Davis’ long-suffering wife Rose and Gabriel (Mykelti Willamson), Troy’s brother whose brains got scrambled in the war. He provides the family with some government benefits, but our hero still has to struggle to make ends meet. To make matters worse, his son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship only comes around when he’s looking for a handout.
Fences, as a title and as an allegorical conceit, makes perfect sense here. Troy wants one built to keep people and things out, while others in the family want to keep him in. It also suggests the psychological wounds that keep this character from enjoying, or even embracing, his life. Washington also directs, but to his credit, he doesn’t turn Troy into some kind of showboat. Instead, he modulates everything with an excellent sense of purpose. Rants only burn when they have to. Pleasantries are passed, but sometimes, fail to be anything other than precursors to more problems.
Acrimony is the underlying theme to most of what goes on, and Troy embodies the emotion with ease. From his poor past in the bigoted South to the equally intolerant traits of the North, this is a man smothered by race and what people think of him because of it. But there is more to it than that. For Troy, life has been a series of Herculean struggles. They may look minor to us in the light of 2016, but the play (set in the ’50s) is overflowing with the desperate realities of the era. Cory represents a path, perhaps, to a better tomorrow. His dad, jealous and jaundiced by what he had to experience, wants his son to suffer as he has/did.
But there is more to it than that, and it’s the reason Fences resonates beyond the basic familial conflict and struggle. You can see it in Davis’ eyes, the sense of place and provocation she feels whenever Troy starts channeling the past. You can hear it in Adepo’s voice, a measured attempt to get his old man’s approval. And you can read it all over Washington’s work here. This is a man who understands Troy’s traits. He may not have lived them 100% himself, but they are part of a shared cultural experience that most African Americans can relate to. It’s what makes Fences timely. It’s also what makes it terrific.
The Blu-ray release includes a collection of making-of featurettes that add context to the story and film.