Even if you didn’t know that Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, you could tell from the opening minutes that director Denzel Washington is basing the movie, and his performance, in the theatrical rather than the cinematic. Maybe not from the first scene, which follows Troy Maxson (Washington) and Mr. Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) along their route collecting trash from the back of a truck as it travels through late-1950’s Pittsburgh. But once the two get off work, collect their paychecks, go to Troy’s home for a drink, catch up with Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and Troy delivers his character establishing monologue – yes, monologue – it becomes apparent that you’re watching a play filmed and projected onto a screen, rather than a film adaptation.
And that’s not entirely a bad thing. Theater is still primarily gated off to most people on terms of price and location, so the opportunity to have a play as well written and culturally relevant as Fences performed by a cast of tremendous actors, captured and made so readily available across time and space is a sort of gift. Granted, it’s one that definitely feels lacking in terms of cinematic language, which is off in terms of, well, cinema; but what Washington misses by using his camera as an almost static recorder, he makes up for in spades with one of the best self-directed performances in recent memory, and a spectacular showcase of acting from an incredible cast.
Fences tells the story of 53 year old Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who, either because of age or race, missed his chance to join the Majors, and is attempting to do his best to provide for his family on a Sanitation-worker’s salary in late-1950’s Pittsburgh. Besides his wife, Rose, Troy provides for his sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a thirty-something musician who’s too involved in his art to find paid work; and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high-achieving high-schooler with dreams of a college football scholarship and a chance at the Majors; and his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who was left mentally impaired after the War.
The main tension of the film comes from Troy’s relationship with Cory. He sees the man his second son is becoming, sees the similarities between himself at his age and his son now, and is too afraid to watch him try and fail that he can’t imagine him trying and succeeding. There’s definitely jealousy on the edges of how Troy forcibly dissuades Cory from football, a resentment of seeing his son succeed where he failed; but it’s masked in very practical worries. Troy already grew up as a black man in 20th century America, he knows what the system will allow from men like him, and he wants his son to be able to support himself and a family above all else.
But very often, Troy’s practicality is betrayed by his grandiosity and presence. He blows into the story like a hurricane, delivering a monologue about how he wrestled Death to a stand-still, and hovers over the movie, in its own words, “like a shadow.” Washington’s performance, like many great theatrical leads, is larger than life, Troy appearing not unlike a God in his own home, which over the course of the movie he enwraps in a wooden fence. He has complete dominion over the small backyard that makes up 90 percent of the movie’s settings, demanding full attention with either his self-aggrandizing stories of his youth, beaming smile, or bitter gaze.
Keeping Washington’s Troy, and the rest of the movie, grounded is Viola Davis as Rose. Her performance embodies the lived-in reception of someone who’s heard Troy’s stories hundreds of times over 18 years of marriage and can expertly separate the wheat from the chaff. She shows restraint when he chews scenery, and a stoic bravery and defense when he attacks her children. And when, in the story’s second half, Troy has nothing left to say, she carries the film with strength and emotion, proving that in every sense of the phrase, Rose is Troy’s better half.
For better and worse, this movie adaptation of Fences remains a powerful piece of theater. More than anything, it showcases the poetry of its stage/screenplay, and the talent of its actors in bringing those words off the page. And over thirty years after they were first written, those words are just as relevant to the struggles of fatherhood, working-class, and black America; play, movie, or otherwise.