Usually stage plays adapted to films don’t make good movies. There are some fantastic exceptions: A Streetcar Named Desire, Driving Miss Daisy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Amadeus, to name a few. You can now add August Wilson’s Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, to the list. Washington gives a dynamic riveting performance as the troubled, complex patriarch, Troy Maxson. Troy is a hardworking garbage collector living in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s with his second wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teen age son Cory (Jovan Adepo). His son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from his first marriage is a talented, but struggling musician, who pops in on Friday paydays to borrow ten dollars, often. The top notch cast is completed by the fantastic Stephen Henderson as Troy’s best friend Bono and an equally impressive Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel who suffered brain damage as a result of a metal plate being put in his head from a WWII injury.
Two time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson died in 2005, yet he is credited with writing the screenplay, so one can surmise that the feature film took a long time to get made. The film deals with themes of paternity, racism, defeatism, infidelity, and the often futile attempt to get ahead in America. Unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of family strife and the condition of African American fractured families, it chronicles the conflict of Troy’s blustery rule over his household, his attempts to avoid self-delusion and self-defeatism and the damage it all does to his family and friends, who he alienates.
Even though it often feels like a filmed play, it is riveting and never stagnant. Much of the drama and action take place in the sad, small backyard of the Maxson house, where Troy spends months building a fence; but Wilson’s language and the performances are so rich you won’t mind the lack of location shift. Actually the performances are so good and interesting that attempts to open up the play to other locations don’t add much at all. If anything they distract a bit, especially as the film nears its ending. Like many plays, some important plot points happen off-screen and some important characters are never seen. Perhaps the film would have benefited from seeing some of these things, but it certainly didn’t suffer from it.
Much of the conflict arises from Cory’s desire to play football and the imminent visit of a college recruiter who could bring news of a college scholarship and therefore a way out. A way out that Troy never had, although the two share athletic prowess. Troy was a great baseball player at one time, and hoped his athletic skills would be a way out for him, but due to his own mistakes and racial bias at the time, baseball just became another thorn in his past. Although several people try to tell Troy that times have changed and now African American athletes are allowed to play on major teams, he wants Cory to forget football and learn a trade. He doesn’t trust the white establishment and thinks the rug will be pulled out from under Cory.
Washington’s performance is magnetic and vivid and although he won the Tony for his stage performance he somehow doesn’t appear too theatrical. Viola Davis who just won the Golden Globe for this role and is the Oscar favorite proves once again, that she is a great actress. Emotionally credible without being melodramatic, she displays both intensity and subtlety with effortless transition. She is a marvel.
Despite the dramatics, Fences manages to not be depressing. Although uplifting may not be the right adjective, it certainly demonstrates hope at the end. Hope that understanding family, even those who sometimes hurt us, can empower us. Rarely has the troubles of a troubled father been so brilliantly realized on screen and with Washington at the helm the complexity and credibility is spot on.