Adapting plays to the big screen is not always a smooth transitions. The structure of plays, typically three acts, and the confined space of a stage can be limiting or formulaic or smaller in scope. Simply put, sometimes the seams can show and it can feel stage-y. It doesn’t always translate well. With Fences, Denzel Washington directs and stars in this adaptation of the August Wilson play in a role that Denzel himself famously performed on Broadway.
Fences is a family drama set in the 1950s Pittsburgh suburbs. Troy Maxson (Washington) is a garbage man with modest aspirations of being the first black man to move from the back of the truck to driving a truck. He comes home to his wife Rose (Viola Davis), and his high school age son Cory (Jovan Adepo). The film takes places mostly over the course of a few Fridays, which are payday, and the drama centers around the simmering tension Troy has with his son over playing high school football and potentially college sports, but also his own personal demons. Through all of this, Troy is working on a fence in the backyard.
Troy is the kind of larger-than-life character that Washington is so adept at playing. Perhaps the biggest strength of Washington as an actor is his ability to play these big characters and still have their humanity show through. Troy is a complicated man. In many ways, Troy is hopeful about the opportunities for black people, thinking he can attain a promotion that has never been given to a black man before in his job. After all, things aren’t the way they were in the past, even if they still aren’t great in the present.
That hope for the future, however, does not extend to his son. Cory is an exceptional high school athlete, and he is being noticed by colleges. In fact, a college recruiter wants to visit about giving Cory an athletic scholarship, but Troy is adamant in his refusal to let this happen, insisting that Cory keep his job at the local A&P store. Troy is blinded by his past in this regard, as he was an aspiring baseball player who never got a shot at the major leagues, because he was too old by the time they started integrating the game, but he believes he never got in because of his color. Josh Larsen, a great film critic that I love, put it perfectly in his review, that Troy is “a man whose entire world, from his domestic relationships to his economic opportunities, exists in a tug-of-war between the Civil War and Civil Rights.” This is further displayed by what we find out more about Troy’s background.
The father-son dynamic between Troy and Cory is clearly strained, and only becomes increasingly so as Troy becomes more entrenched in his mindset and Cory, being a teenager, is seemingly fated to resist that and butt his head against that. The stated reason that Troy gives is that he doesn’t believe that the world of sports has advanced significantly since he left, but there is enough of a hint of jealousy in his demeanor that his son could possibly succeed where he feels he failed.
If Troy is larger than life, Rose is a quiet but strong presence throughout the majority of the film. While Troy is at times blustery and inconsistent, she is a steady force in the family. Like Washington, Viola Davis also portrayed Rose in the Broadway performance of this role, and she is his equal on the screen. Davis is an actress who is considered one of the best among her peers and by many critics, yet seems underutilized in Hollywood despite her talent. Here, though, she is given the chance to shine as the matriarch of the house trying to hold everything together when Troy’s words and actions threaten to tear it apart. One scene, in particular, after Troy breaks some terrible news to her, is almost sure to nab her the Oscar, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Washington and Davis are surrounded by a solid supporting cast, in addition to Adepo, that includes longtime character actor Stephen Henderson as Troy’s friend Bono, Russell Hornsby as Troy’s son from a previous relationship, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel who suffered brain damage as a result of shrapnel he took to the skull in World War II, and whose pension Troy used to buy the house they now live in.
Fences is not without its limitations. Visually, the film is unspectacular and it is very obvious that it is adapted from a stage performance. However, while none of these are strengths of the films, they do not severely detract from the film either. The focus of it all is on the performances, and while nothing in this area enhances that, nothing Washington does with the camera or staging of this film detracts from that in any way.
The fences the title references are an allegorical part of the film. They represent the barriers that Troy has put up between himself and others, including his own son(s) and his wife in addition to parts of the outside world. For Rose, they represent protection of her family. For Cory, the fences represent how constraining the restrictions of his father are. Fences is a powerful family drama populated with rich, human characters during a period of time that right on the cusp of change and a character at the center who is caught in the middle of the way the world was and the way the world will be.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars