Director Denzel Washington is smart enough to let the material and the performances speak for themselves in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
It’s been a nearly thirty-year journey for August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning-play Fences from stage to screen, but the wait was worth it in order to witness Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who excel in these roles.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a garbage collector embittered toward a world that’s quickly passing him by as he struggles to provide for several generations of his family. Troy is a former Negro League baseball player who blames his failure to make the majors solely on racist white ownership, and not being past his prime when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. The experience of going from star athlete to garbage man has shaped his life ever since, affecting how he sees the opportunities presented to him in middle age and leading him to discourage his childrens’ artistic and athletic endeavors.
Troy is an all-time great talker as sculpted by Wilson, gabbing his way into and out of trouble at work and at home, and bullshitting with everyone who comes by the Maxson house over the course of the film. Sometimes that’s his old friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), with whom he’s shares a friendly bottle of gin on payday. Other times it’s one of his two boys, Lyons and Corey (Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo, respectively), as he lectures them on the “correct” courses for their lives. Most tellingly are the moments he spends with his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a war veteran with a metal plate in his head who now spends his days wandering Pittsburgh’s black neighborhoods and preaching about the afterlife. For all of his reminiscing with Bono and lecturing with Lyons and Corey about how the system will keep a black man down, it’s the revelation that the Maxson homestead was bought with Gabriel’s disabled veteran’s checks that cuts Troy the most, constantly reminding him of the way he built his own life on the back of his brother’s misfortune.
Washington lacks the physical girth ascribed to Troy in the play and as originally portrayed on Broadway by James Earl Jones, but Washington makes up for it with pure bombast. His demeanor and powerful voice are their own version of intimidating, matched with his often domineering speeches towards his youngest child, Corey. Corey often bears the brunt of his father’s worldview, discouraged from pursuing a college football scholarship that he’s been offered in favor of a job or apprenticeship, a disagreement that drives much of the film’s drama. Still, Troy isn’t all bluster, and the role is tailored perfectly to Washington’s gifts as a silky, charismatic charmer. Troy’s flirtations with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), are often endearingly off-color, and her constant calling-out of his nonsense is equally delightful. Troy will tell anyone who will listen about their old courting days, but Rose playfully swats him away and redirects him to the pile of lumber that’s supposed to be a fence around their yard.
Both Washington and Davis are excellent, and Davis is frequently extraordinary. She and Washington have a remarkable chemistry born from playing these roles night after night on stage in their 2010 Broadway revival. The way they easily slide from flirtation to everyday domesticism, and then to anger, is fascinating, and Davis doesn’t deserve to be called a “supporting” actress in anyone’s shadow. She’s a force of nature in her own right, and she tears through Wilson’s expert dialogue just as easily as Washington. Rose is often left to the maternal, wifely role, acting as a counter-point to Troy’s bouts of equal parts authoritarianism and jocularity, but everything in the film points to her as the rock that the important parts of Troy’s life are built upon, and Davis plays it with stunning grace. The other characters constantly remind Troy of what a good woman he has in Rose. Still, when her moment does come, few performers can cry as heart-wrenchingly on screen as Davis, and her portrayal of Rose’s devastation will make you turn away in shame.
Much of the delay bringing the play to the screen was due to Wilson’s desire for a black director to helm the project, and it had become a passion project of sorts for Washington after he and Davis won Tonys for their performances in the revival. His directorial work here is certainly adequate, if not particularly memorable, just as it was in his other two directorial features, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. Washington will never be as creative a force behind the camera as, say, actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood or Ben Affleck, but he’s certainly not incompetent.
At times I felt for Washington as a director. Wilson’s script and play are so dialogue-centric that there’s not a ton he can do except a series of rotating over-the-shoulder shots. The entirety of Wilson’s play takes place in the Maxson backyard, but the film makes some intelligent decisions to relocate certain scenes inside and to Troy’s worksite in order to break up the visual monotony. I’m not sure if those decisions were Washington’s or the script’s, but they’re effective. Some have criticized the film as overly “stagey,” but it’s just the one scene where Washington really tries something different, having Troy literally stick his head out the window into a raging thunderstorm and yell at the elements, that really doesn’t work. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.
There are moments when the dual role as actor/producer seems to have been too much, and the directorial side of the equation suffers as a result. Fences’ biggest problem is its nearly 140-minute runtime, and it certainly begins to sag in the final act. Could Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, or even Kenny Leon, who directed Washington and Davis in the 2010 Broadway revival, have done better? Maybe, but Washington is smart enough to understand that he’s working with phenomenal source material, and his best move is often to just get out of the way and let Wilson’s words and the powerhouse performances be the only camera effects he needs.
Fences is not an easy film to watch. Even with it’s much needed notes of humor, the film is nearly two and a half hours of pain wrought forth on screen, and I felt wrung-out after watching it. But there’s no denying how incredible it is to see Davis and Washington hurdle over this high bar that August Wilson’s writing offers.
One of Troy’s most frequent stories is about his “fight” with death as a younger man, positing death as a Seventh Seal-type Grim Reaper who comes to wrestle rather than play chess. Troy views the fence he’s building as a physical barrier to keep the Reaper away from his family, slowly constructing it over the film’s runtime without ever understanding the metaphorical fences he’s built between himself and his loved ones. The irony, of course, is that Troy’s claim to fame as a baseball player was as a powerful slugger who’d not just hit home runs, but blast baseballs that often left the park, flying high over the outfield fences on their way out. He, if anyone, should understand that barriers, physical and metaphorical, aren’t impassable, and could always be overcome if you just had the right swing.