Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Stephen Henderson | Written by August Wilson | Directed by Denzel Washington
Based on the stage play by the late August Wilson, Fences is the third directorial effort from Denzel Washington. The period is the mid-1950s, and we zoom from Pittsburgh, to the street, to the backyard and kitchen of the Maxson family.
The loose story circles Troy (Washington) and Rose (Viola Davis), marriage veterans of 18 years, and the friends and family around them, as revelations and resentments come home to roost. They have a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose yearning for an NFL career his father hates. Troy’s son from another mother, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), visits like clockwork on daddy’s payday. And there’s Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s older brother, who lost half his brain in the war, and now he’s a source of shame and pity and joy.
Sticking resolutely to two or three simple locations, this is an adaptation faithfully comprised of monologues and dialogues. At 139 minutes, be prepared but not dissuaded by the volume of language – because what great language it is. Especially during the opening scenes, as Troy and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) banter together, and there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in a local tongue that sounds virtually alien to modern European ears.
Washington and Davis won Tony awards for their portrayals on the stage, and they deserve their Oscar nominations for the screen. Given their relative screen time, it isn’t clear why Washington should be up for the main award and Davis only “Supporting” – but given the content of the film, it actually makes an ironic sense. Rose’s support for Troy is unending; always the counterbalance to whatever manic mood is taking him.
One “fence” of the title is that which Troy is building around his yard. It keeps others out but also his family in, fashioning a separate, hermetically-sealed world. The role of father is a job to him: somewhere he goes to perform a duty. At home he can be a success, but can also make excuses for his failures. His resistance to Cory’s football ambitions reflect his regrets, and Troy blames his own lack of sporting success on social progress rather than personal prowess. Racial prejudice is a legitimate concern; but where Cory sees a chance to push for social change through achievement, Troy sees an impassable barrier. Troy speaks of how hard things were in the past but he is also terrified of change.
Fences inverts the cliché of the absent father. Troy is conspicuous in his presence. It’s a presence that fills rooms, but in doing so leaves no room for others. He is a laughing tyrant, full of funny stories but unwilling to do his duty for something as unmanly as love or affection. Which is why his devastating revelation to Rose – the point at which the domestic bubble bursts – is so unsurprising.
Some may feel like the script attempts to legitimise the abusive actions of Troy. But it’s more complex than that. We are asked to empathise, not sympathise. Wilson is providing psychological and familial context. The sort of context so often left out of the memoirs of men: the everyday person that they were to be around.
Amongst other things, it’s a film about death. An opening monologue sees Troy describing a literal fistfight with the Grim Reaper, allegedly wrestling the scythe from his grasp. A story, it seems, that he has adapted and embellished over the years. One gets the sense that Troy’s need to be noticed, to be centre of attention, is a cry to be relevant. Constantly reminding others of his influence – the clothes on their back; the food in their belly – Troy wants to make his usefulness known in life; and his pride in squaring up to Death further suggests an underlying anxiety about whether his life has been sufficiently meaningful.
Rose is the centre of the family and Troy is the oversized planet that orbits her. The satellites are the sons, while the unpredictable comet, always threatening to smash the balance, is Gabriel. It’s a moving performance from Williamson, even if it does flirt with the angelic madman stereotype.
Typical for actors-turned-director, Washington draws excellent performances from his players, but offers little in the way of filmmaking flourish. At its best the film’s staging is powerfully unfussy; at worst, it’s a visually bland affair. There are also some pacing issues. The passage of time can be easily represented on film, but sometimes it’s unclear here. And while I can see the value in stripping down the dialogue for the final stretch – any scenes where Troy is absent are echoingly quiet – the third act simply isn’t as dramatically arresting as the scenes which led to it.
But these minor quibbles should take nothing away from the wallop of Washington’s film, and certainly don’t undermine the complexity and the unsentimental power of Wilson’s words. Prepare yourself for an intense and intelligent drama, visually static but dramatically kinetic, full of talk, and subtly heartbreaking.
Fences is out in cinemas now.