Set entirely within the predominantly African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, Denzel Washingtons Fences is an adaptation of one of the plays in August Wilsons 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle. Each play in the series, written over a period of 20 years, is set during a different decade of the 20th century and focuses on the African-American experience. Fences, which is set during the late 1950s, was actually the second play in the series to be written (initially penned in 1983, it was first performed in 1985 and debuted on Broadway in 1987), and it is the only one to focus so intently on a single family. Given that it won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it is the best known of the series, especially after it won another round of Tonys for its Broadway revival in 2010.
Washington, who played the lead in that 2010 revival, has reassembled almost the entirety of the Broadway cast for the film adaptation, which is based on a screenplay written by Wilson himself, who passed away in 2005 (playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner was apparently brought in to complete the unfinished draft, although he is credited only as a producer). This is the third time for Washington behind the camera, following Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007), and as he did with those films, he proves himself to be a solid craftsman who eschews a lot of aesthetic flourish for an intense focus on the performers. He has a different task at hand here, as he is adapting a stageplay for the screen, which is always a tricky endeavor since it usually leads to either a cramped, stage-bound film or one that bears little resemblance to its source. Fences leans more toward the former than the latter, partially due to the fact that virtually every scene takes place in and around a brownstone occupied by the Maxson family, although a few scenes have been moved to locations in the nearby vicinity.
The story centers around Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her role). Troy is a 53-year-old garbage collector who provides a relatively stable home life for Rose and their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo, the only main character not played by a member of 2010 Broadway revival cast). Despite being lower middle class, they still struggle financially, and Troy bears with him decades of bitterness about racial oppression that denied him a baseball career in the Major Leagues (he played successful in the Negro League, which is why he tends to speak in baseball metaphors). He also fears that that same racial oppression will deny his son a place on a college football team, which is why he discourages him from pursuing the sport despite the doors it might open for him. Troys adult son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is trying to make it as a musician and tends to drop by the house on payday to borrow money. He also has a brother named Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was wounded in World War II and as a result is mentally impaired.
The title of the film refers both literally to a wooden fence that Troy is building around his backyard and to the metaphorical barriers he throws up all around him. A product of an abusive father who drove him from home at the age of 14, Troy is a hardened disciplinarian whose bullying tactics in response to Corys desire to play football and Lyonss artistic aspirations disguises with self-righteous practicality his own bitterness about his illiterate, blue-collar station in life. He preaches responsibility above all (his response to Corys concern that he doesnt like him is that he doesnt have to like him because his primary purpose is to uphold his responsibility of providing for him), but as the films second half makes clear, his responsibility to his marriage comes up far short. He professes a deep and abiding love for Rose, even as he frequently berates and belittles her, often in a convivial manner that allows her to stand up for herself without significantly bruising his masculine ego.
Yet, Troy is ultimately too consumed with himself and his own view of the world to allow anyone to penetrate him, to get truly close to him. He is, in effect, walled off from everyone around him, including his ostensible best friend, a fellow garbage collector named Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The story is predicated on the difficulties faced by men like Troy, raised with a particular understanding of what it means to be not just a man, but a black man in a racist world that is nevertheless changing in ways that his calcified myopia refuses to see. An argument between him and Cory about the relative merits of African-American baseball players underscores Corys (and Roses) recognition of changing race relations while Troy can only see a thinly disguised ruse to further oppress blacks. While he often laughs and jokes and tells wild stories about wrestling with the grim reaper, Troys fundamental nature is mired in anger, resentment, and fear. Thus, even though he is frequently a despicable character, a man who treats those who love him with contempt and disdain, he is also tragic in the grandest sensea product of the world in which he was raised and, in many ways, abused.
As a director, Washington has a deep sense of character, and the best one can say about Fences is that it feels constantly alive. Each of the main characters is indelibly written and performed by a cast whose previous experiences performing the play together more than 100 times has given them a sense of connection that makes them feel like old souls who have been together for years. Washington and Davis quickly establish a familiarity that makes them utterly convincing as a couple who have been together through ups and downs for nearly two decades, which is precisely what makes the later revelation of Troys betrayal all the more devastating.
Yet, the power of the story lies not in its tragedy, but in how it finds the good in the bad, the seed of hope in the moments of despair, the strength of character in those most deeply and fundamentally flawed; while not conventionally feel-good like Washingtons previous directorial efforts, Fences still reaches for the silver lining. However, Washington never quite overcomes the staginess of the material, as the limited locations and the self-contained scenes that inevitably build to some kind of character-revealing conflict bear too many traces of the films stagebound origins. Yet, Fences conveys in frequently powerful terms the complicated depths of its characters, particularly Daviss Rose, who suffers greatly yet maintains a sense of strength and dignity that transcends the limitations of those around her.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of California Telegraph news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.