Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player from the Negro Leagues caught in a downward spiral of male menopause, uncertain whether he wants to be a devoted husband and father or a gin-drinking rounder, whether or not he wants to continually relive his glory days or shield his children from the false promise of organized athletics, whether or not he wants to be a swaggering blowhard or a wizened patriarch.
The play owes its DNA to Arthur Miller as much as Lorraine Hansberry, with a tight lens on a small, struggling family in a small, claustrophobic house in a small, insular corner of Pittsburgh. Fences fits neatly in that genre of “up against it” 1950s family drama, where the walls closing in (economically, emotionally, socially) spark tension and narrative complications.
Viola Davis is heart-wrenchingly exquisite as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. As the film unfolds, we learn about their courtship, the familial secrets between them, the intimate details of their daily rituals. Davis so fully inhabits this world (and the detailed set design – truly, the Maxson home in Fences is a compact marvel of on-location perfection), striking the right balance between being a recognizable “movie star” and completely immersing herself in the mundane beauty of her character’s daily life. As a result, Troy’s eventual emotional/physical betrayal of Rose hits like a sucker punch, and Davis’ Rose doesn’t take kindly to her husband so blithely imploding her idyllic quietude. Davis’ mid-film confrontation with Washington is well worth the ticket price alone. You remember that scene in Doubt when we all first said “Who is that?!?” as Davis’ character gave Meryl Streep the what-for over Streep’s well-intentioned meddling? Well, multiply that by 100. Someone get Davis – and the audience – a gilded box of Kleenex, stat.
Washington just can’t compete with Davis, though he does credible work as both director and actor creating presence and ambience that linger well after the final credits roll. I have long suspected that an actor cannot direct him or herself with full objectivity, and I fear that is a bit of the problem with this film. Davis and Washington won Tony awards for playing these very roles on Broadway a few years back, and Washington no doubt was confident he could effortlessly transfer his performance from one medium to the other. I think an outside perspective may have helped eliminate the trademark Denzel twinkle that runs the risk of sinking his performance with hambone indulgence. YET, Denzel is playing a character whose Achilles’ heel is self-indulgence, so it is difficult to parse what may be an actor’s trap from what is compelling characterization.
Wilson’s play, which he adapted for the screen before his death, is a meditation on mortality, racial marginalization, gender identity, socioeconomic restrictions, and the very nature of family. The “fences” in the title are ubiquitous, sometimes physical as in the fence Troy is building around his backyard, but often they are metaphorical. The characters’ true inner natures conflict with their projected personae and their deepest desires, boxing them in with unfulfilled potential. If there ever was a movie about dreams deferred, it is this one, whether it is Troy’s stunted career as a professional athlete or Rose’s desire for a peaceful nuclear family or their son Cory’s pursuit of a football scholarship which is sadly and predictably derailed by the egomania of his father.
Jovan Adepo is thoughtful and engaging if unremarkable as Cory, and Russell Hornsby leaves a more haunting impression as Lyons, Troy’s troubled son from an earlier relationship. Mykelti Williamson is playing to the cheap seats as Troy’s war-vet brother Gabe. Gabe’s closed-head injury provides a steady stream of government income to the Maxson family, and Williamson’s characterization provides a steady stream of cringe-worthy moments for the audience. The character may have worked ok as a plot device in the mid-80s when Fences was originally conceived, but today Gabe just comes off as an obvious plot device and a rather tone-deaf one at that. Stage vet Stephen McKinley Henderson (also making the transfer from the Broadway revival to the film version) is by far the strongest supporting player as Troy’s confidante and co-worker Jim Bono. Like Davis, Henderson imbues the proceedings with an authenticity and an integrity that the other players can’t quite nail. The script’s rat-a-tat interplay rolls effortlessly off Henderson’s tongue, yet he is strongest in the too-few quiet moments (I wish there had been more – this is a talky piece), conveying a world of hurt with a flick of his eyes as he listens to and observes the Maxson family deteriorate around him.
I admit that I have never seen the play Fences on stage, and I am curious how a theatrical presentation illuminates the piece’s more esoteric themes. As my mom noted after our viewing, there is a King Lear quality to Troy’s character arc – a “man without a country” vibe that Washington gets within a hair’s breadth of achieving. Monologues that are likely lightning rods of plainspoken existentialism onstage are muddled in the need to open up more cinematic vistas. The film does its work maintaining an oppressive sense of claustrophobia, but doesn’t quite reach the levels of caged ferocity I suspect the play might.We are living in a moment where race and gender politics are more heated than ever, and people feel attacked on all sides just for being themselves. Fences comes at an interesting time, and it will be noteworthy to see how audiences embrace the film and its narrative. Throughout the first act, Viola Davis’s character often tries to get Troy to accept son Cory’s hopes and dreams of a better future by insisting that “the world has changed.” During our particular showing, that line received a vocal reaction from the incredulous and world-weary audience, a sound that hovered between a gasp and a guffaw. I have to admit that hearing a screen character from 1956 express a sentiment that 60 years later rings so hollow gave me pause as well.
Neither playwright Wilson nor director Washington condescend to their subject matter, and Fences resists the urge to marginalize its creations by pushing them to melodramatic extremes. Rather, the film shows us our own humanity by detailing the very real life – both tragic and hopeful – occurring behind every front door on every neighborhood block. Praise be.
Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise …
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.