Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Denzel Washington's passion project shows that when he has a vision, he is willing to take the long road if it means getting it right. Fences is a powerful and brilliantly acted film adaptation of the late playwright August Wilson's stage production about an African-American family living in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s.
Starring Washington as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged head of household struggling to provide for his family while working as a garbage collector, Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Stephen Henderson as Troy's co-worker and best friend, and Troy's brother Mykelti Williamson. In addition are Troy and Rose's two sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby).
Previous attempts at developing the play into a film had met with little success, in part due to Wilson's insistence that it be directed by an African-American. Washington had taken on the role of Troy in the play's 2010 Broadway revival in preparation for what he hopes would be a successful opportunity to direct it himself. Viola, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson all also starred in the same revival, giving the core of the cast a 13 week opportunity to dial in the characters.
The physical scope of the film is not large, other than a few brief scenes relating to Troy's work, the action taking place in and around the Maxson home, which is intimate for a film, but not atypical for the stage. During the San Francisco premiere, Washington and Henderson both commented on how the translation from the stage to the film allowed for the performances to be more intimate and to take on a more personal feel than when having to fill a theater from a stage.
Taking Tony-award winning Broadway actors and giving them characters that they have spent time with, then letting their scenes play out in their own time is a rare experience and Washington paces it all with a deft hand. The scenes never feel longer or shorter than the needed to be. The Royal Shakespeare Company do filmed versions of the Bard's plays on a regular basis, but a story like this, that of the American experience of the era, and especially of the African-American perspective is unique.
Troy is a talker, and he is the narrator of his life. He is that uncle everyone has that will have a story for every occasion, and never hold back on sharing his sometimes wise and often TMI thoughts with those around him. He struggles with acceptance at work, fighting to become the city's first garbage truck driver, but at the same time his sons struggle with finding respect from him. His younger son Cory wants to play football, but Troy insists that he's wasting his time because no team will allow colored players. The older son (from a prior marriage), Lyons, only appears whenever Troy's payday comes around, and is chasing his own dream to become a musician.
Troy was forced to give up his own dreams of being a baseball player because of the color of his skin. While he keeps striving for acceptance with others, he derides his children for chasing their own. They should get respectable jobs and accept their lot in life, is his recurring message.
Viola as Rose is the quintessential strong mother figure. She projects the inner strength that it takes to give up on her own dreams, raise children, and back a strong figure like Troy. While their world swirls around Troy, she manages to always maintain her own identity in the midst of it all. When it comes to light that Troy has been having an affair, Rose's devastation and her response in the aftermath is as real and as powerful as any on film. If she doesn't get at least a best actress nomination for her role, there's really no justice in the world.
Troy as a father is equal parts noble and villain. When Cory asks Troy if he has ever liked him, Troy laughs in derision. Troy says he has a duty to his son, to raise him, to feed him, and to clothe him, but he has no responsibility to like him. Members in the audience of a certain age who have fathers who had been raised in the era can be seen to shrink back, hearing echoes of their own parents in every word.
It's an honest and strong film. We asked Denzel what he hoped that audiences would take away from seeing the film, and he paused giving that grin which he is famous for and just said , "Family. How for better or for worse, things always revolved around family, because that was what they had."