Movies are an offspring of plays. What started on theater stages can now step into a wider world. Locations can remove the boundaries and improve an immersive story, but the human performances are still what matters most. Words have power regardless of setting. “Fences,” directed by Denzel Washington, is one of the finest and most seamless examples of the power of performance being translated from the stage to the screen.
“Fences” is directed by the two-time Oscar winner himself, his third foray as a director (“The Great Debaters” and “Antwone Fisher”) and first directorial effort in nine years. Washington chose a source near and dear to his heart, the late August Wilson’s poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The actor starred with Davis in its 2010 Broadway revival which earned three Tony Awards (including trophies for those two stars). The source material is lauded as a triumph of the African-American experience pre-dating the Civil Rights Movement and the film loses none of that impact.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxon (Washington) is a hard-working, barrel-lifting garbageman alongside his longtime best friend Jim Bono (veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson). Every payday, the two come home and split a pint of gin on the back porch chewing the cud. More often than not, it’s Troy dominating the ranting, raving, and, ever more clearly, the sipping. As the pint gets lighter, the stories and provocations become louder and more volatile as Troy laments over the struggles of his life and his firmly-set, yet increasingly dated, principles.
The ears, eyes, and fact-checker on the other end of too many of Troy’s rants is Rose (Viola Davis), his God-fearing and loyal wife of nearly 20 years. They are lucky enough to have a house to call a home, better than a pot to piss in, bought somewhat unscrupulously from injury money entitled to his younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) after head injuries sustained in World War II. The mentally disabled Gabriel is a regret and neighborhood embarrassment for Troy.
In his youth, Troy was a former pre-color barrier Negro League baseball player. In his mid-50s now, Troy still drops baseball analogies and stews about the racial discrimination he blames for keeping him from the money and hey-dey he felt he deserved. He has learned too well since the unforgiving life of menial labor.
Like his father before him, Troy pushes much of his antipathy and hostility onto his two sons. The oldest is Lyons (Russell Hornsby of “Grimm”), a struggling jazz musician fathered from a previous marriage and living on his own. His son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo, in a very impressive feature film debut), is a high school football player being recruited for college scholarships. Troy has promised to build his wife a fence and has pressed Cory to help, creating more confrontation than father-son bonding.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the initial Broadway production of “Fences” won four Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards in 1987. Running for 525 performances over the course of 15 months, James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, and Courtney B. Vance starred in the Troy, Rose, and Cory roles respectively. The words may be the same, but the more fanatical and vigorous tone of Denzel Washington takes Wilson’s play to a different place than booming regality of Jones. For a taste test, see a scene comparison between the two on stage here.
As a tough-talker who feels like he can stare down Satan himself, Denzel Washington gives the devil his due as a man who is never soft and rarely sorry. True to his own greatness as formidable shit-talker and bracingly showing his 62 years of age, Denzel gives a robust performance of unflinching tenacity. Equally intense in a more difficult role, Viola Davis weathers a hurricane and, when she pushes back, still scorches the very ground. Expect serious Oscar consideration as both add new cornerstones to their legendary careers.
Not a single word was lifted from Wilson’s play to create Washington’s 138 minute film. Even the original musical selections, including Dinah Washington’s telling interlude “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” remain intact. Shot in sequence and on location in Pittsburgh, the period details, physical locations, and the intimacy of Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera enliven the proceedings masterfully. “Fences” and its speechifying monologues exhibit the patience of the stage and requires it in return from its audience. The reward is an experience of unquestioned dramatic power.
LESSON #1: THE ALLEGORY OF FENCES-- Wilson’s title alludes to the dual metaphor of fences symbolically keeping things away or holding things in. Much family strife and history is revealed throughout “Fences” that fit both ends of the parable.
LESSON #2: WHEN YOUR TIME COMES TOO EARLY-- Troy was denied his athletic dreams and that missing passion anchors his past as well as his present. He feels passed over constantly and nothing is ever good enough because it cannot measure up to what could have been. These mid-1950s are on the cusp of changing societal times and Troy is one that will not evolve.
LESSON #3: THE QUINTESSENTIAL “HARD FATHER”-- Troy may pontificate that he does not wish his sinful and scarred life on his sons, yet unregrettably feels they require hardships of their own. He piles that rhetoric on further by touting his burden of responsibility to house, feed, and provide for his family. It’s hate veiled as character-building and tough love.
LESSON #4: SHOW LOVE TO YOUR CHILDREN-- Troy’s famous statement “Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you” is sound logic where love and affection are not always the right answers. Sure, but sometimes they are, as Rose demonstrates. A parent can ingrain responsibility and character and still show love. Talk to your kids. Show interest and attention. Hug them when they succeed and even when they fail. Don’t be Troy Maxon. There are better ways to parent.