Washington And Davis Dominate Fiery "Fences"

“Fences” is notable as Denzel Washington’s first directorial effort in nearly a decade; conversely, its direction is one of the least notable things about it. Adapted from August Wilson’s 1983 play by the playwright himself before his death in 2005, the film version arrives with a hell of a cast – the core of which headlined a Broadway revival in 2010 – and limited considerations for its new medium. It is very much a play on film, frequently acted for the cheap seats, mostly unconcerned with the spatial differences between theater and film. Consequently, viewers disinclined to actorly pomp might have trouble wresting themselves from the rapid-fire dialogue and gesticulation to see the big picture.

That is, that the heart of Wilson’s text is a phenomenally layered character study and acting showcase. And Washington, Viola Davis, and most of their co-stars are more than up for it.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The late 1950s. Troy Maxson (Washington in a role originated by James Earl Jones) is a garbage man, husband, father, and former Negro league ballplayer. He’s also something of a showman. He spends his downtime gamboling about his neighborhood with co-worker and best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), drinking gin and regaling anyone who’ll listen with stories of baseball and criminality and sex and the Grim Reaper himself. “You got more stories than the devil got sinners,” notes Bono, not hyperbolically.

While Troy talks, taunted by the ratty old baseball that hangs by a rope from a tree in his backyard, a symbol of all his near-victories and definite failings, his wife Rose (Davis) is just inside the house, holding the Maxson family together. Her quiet patience is considerate of both her husband’s troubled lot in life and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player. The same racism that Troy believes kept his 40-year-old self out of newly integrated Major League Baseball (“Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody,” he insists) threatens Cory’s future in much the same way. And Rose is determined to do everything she can to give Cory the happiest home possible.

The full picture of Troy begins to come into focus when his 34-year-old son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship stops by the Maxson household to borrow ten dollars. All hell breaks loose in the form of a drunken lecture that turns from stern to venomous. It’s left to Rose, as always, to restore order.

Over the course of the next hour and change, Washington and Davis are tasked with unstitching their characters via August Wilson’s plentiful metaphors and at least a half dozen compelling exchanges. By the time we arrive at the core of Troy and Rose, Washington the director has sneakily begun to direct his play on film like a film, using a particularly gripping montage to depict a crucial passage of time. Viewers will feel everything at once for Troy, and then nothing, a signpost of one of the greatest working actors doing some of his best work. Davis is every bit as good.

There’s one weak link in the cast. Mykelti Williamson co-stars as Troy’s brother Gabriel, an ex-soldier who suffered brain damage in World War II and has been left to wander the streets of Pittsburgh. Gabriel adds a certain dimension to Troy that the story requires, but Williamson leans all too hard on an antiquated vision of mentally impaired characters. Where Washington and Davis are more than talented enough to make their big, broad performances work, Williamson takes the broadest approach of all to the play’s most delicate character. The results are ugly, nearly sinking the film’s final moments with an ill-advised take on the screenplay’s biggest cliché. (It involves a trumpet.)

Everyone else is terrific, though, making all the talk about fences as walls we put up to keep things out and in come off as vital instead of hammy. Wilson’s dialogue requires actors capable of handling cadence in a way that deemphasizes individual phrases and stresses how they connect; what they say about the character saying them. Washington and Davis are the quintessence of exactly that, bringing a strong history in both theater and film to a project that’s an unusual mix of both.

After all, there’s something to be said for a great Broadway show at the price of a movie ticket.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 16, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Willimason, Saniyya Sidney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references)