August O. Wilson’s Pulitzer-prize winning play “Fences” has long been a hallmark of theater for audiences, as well as a rewarding opportunity for stage actors. Now, Denzel Washington has teamed with the playwright to adapt Wilson’s play into a film. The question on many theatergoers minds is whether the film is any good, and exactly how good is Washington’s direction.
The answer is that the film is, of course, very good. Denzel Washington turns in a performance that showcases his abilities as a showman and as a character rounded by his environment, experiences, and unique perspectives. As Troy Maxson, Washington tells stories with a verbal flexibility that is unmatched by many characters today, on film or television.
Washington’s work is certainly remarkable on its own, but his character’s monologues are lengthy and frequent, to the point that they quickly become tiring. The film is a heavy 2 hours and 18 minutes of mostly Troy’s voice, and quickly shifts from drunken humor to torrents of abusive behavior. Though his humor often borders on lewd in nature, it is a vital part of the character’s presentation, and his talk is not always just talk. He is motivated by more than money. He desires respect and power, even if he isn’t qualified for it.
We see his life in this short period, but we don’t get to see every inch of his life the way we might in other character-centric films. Parts of his life are kept from his family and the viewer, the same way we might simply not disclose information to our own loved ones. He sees himself as a family man, but treats his two sons as though they are unworthy of him, regardless of their actual strengths and weaknesses.
On the other hand, we have Rose Maxson (Viola Davis). Rose is sharp, forgiving, and kind. Davis nails her character, as always, and the performance is reminiscent of her powerful performance in 2008’s Doubt, another stage adaptation, cry-snot and all. Rose deals with a man who is both physically strong and stuck in his ways. Her ability to handle Troy – at his best and worst – are the most immediate moments in the film. Her heart and head beat in sync with the seasons, into the fall, freeze, and the thaw. She seems to only exist within the confines of the house, and her unchaining is tremendous. If anything, Davis an expert in characters who are much more than they appear.
Rose and Troy have a son together, Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high schooler who has ambitions of playing professional football. His father is an ex-Negro League baseball player who, about two decades later, doesn’t approve of his son doing work that won’t lead to a steady job. Troy works as a rubbish collector and has goals of moving up the chain of command, one step at a time. The lessons that Troy has learned from not being around to raise his eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), born from a woman he met before Rose, seem to haunt his treatment of Cory. It is as though Cory’s dreams are not meaningful if they are intangible. Lyons works as a musician, but it is implied that he might gamble away some of his earnings, and is untrustworthy.
For Cory, football is more than just a game. It is a way out of his father’s house and into an actual sense of freedom. He must keep his grades high to play ball at a higher level, and is informed that a recruiter from a college wants to meet him. Cory juggles his school work, football practices, chores, and a part-time job in hopes of something better for himself. He quietly does all he can while still trying to have fun like any other teen. When thinking of teens in the 50s, we should ruminate on the strength that Cory finds within himself as a young man becoming.
Fences is an intricate and dialogue-heavy film. For all of its weight, the story that it captures is not only an all-American one, it is also a reflection of the unique experiences of African-Americans living normal lives during a time of great civil change. In many ways, it is hyper-realistic and imitates the staging of a theatrical performance. As the film unfolds it becomes increasingly cinematic, until it starts to edge into something almost like a fever-dream, with Troy’s character becoming increasingly reminiscent of King Lear, a tragic hero whose castle was only within his own mind.