Fences is the film adaptation of August Wilson’s successful play of the same name.
It is of course always touch and go as to whether stage productions translate convincingly to the big screen, and it’s Denzel Washington – both directing and performing here, having himself acted in the play’s successful 2010 revival on Broadway – who attempts to bring Wilson’s vision to the big screen.
Set in a working class neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington), a refuse collector, lives in a modest house with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).
Troy is a dominant personality. Unafraid to voice his opinions, he likes the sound of his own voice, and reigns over ‘his’ household through a combination of high moral values, and stubborn inflexibility. It is however arguably Rose’s motherly, more diplomatic approach to family, and life in general, that is really the glue that holds this household together.
Theirs is a life of relatively simple routine; the sort born out of both financial restraints, and the rather traditional gender roles that each adopts within the household.
Such an apparently workable and measured existence, however, masks a multitude of issues which escalate steadily as the film progresses, and it’s Troy’s need to project his own ideals, fears and bitter prejudices onto others, that is generally the main cause of this increasing unrest.
Troy and his closest friend and work colleague, Jim, (Stephen Henderson), will often wax lyrical about anything and everything over a bottle of gin at the end of a working day. Poor Rose, the very model of restrained poise and patience, must endure these occasionally charming, yet frequently self-righteous monologues – an often raucous blend of humour and baseball analogies.
Troy’s life is one of grudges and mistrust. A star baseball player in America’s ‘Negro’ leagues back in the day, he feels that his opportunities to progress into the major leagues were hampered by his skin colour alone. Whilst issues of racial prejudice have by no means been vanquished from 1950s American society – far from it – they are by no means the entirely debilitating issue that once they were.
But Troy will hear none of it.
“You best not be worrying about whether someone likes you, you just worry about whether they do right by you…” – or words to that effect. This is Troy’s mantra and life-instruction to youngest son, Cory, whose promising American football career his father insists is to play second fiddle to the security afforded by the part-time job Cory holds down after school.
Troy’s mistrust of the intentions of Cory’s football coach are a serious impediment to the dreams and aspirations of his son; the very same dreams and aspirations that Troy himself had clutched to as a younger man.
No matter the argument though, Troy’s mind is not for turning.
Perhaps the hardest thing for Troy to accept, however – in light of his unshakable principles – is the fact that his only brother, Gabriel (the excellent Mykelti Williamson), suffers from serious mental health issues, the result of a terrible injury sustained serving his country. Without Gabriel’s subsequent insurance payout, Troy would never have been able to pay for the roof above his own family’s head.
This deeply troubles the extremely principled Troy; a man racked with guilt. A man of foolish pride.
Troy’s catalogue of personal trials and tribulations the Maxson household has collectively learnt to deal with. But everything will soon pale into relative insignificance owing to the shattering news that Troy must somehow find the strength to divulge to his family…
If you were unaware beforehand, it’s pretty obvious that Fences is a piece adapted from the stage. Granted there are subtle directorial attempts to introduce a slightly less static, more cinematic interest to proceedings through the occasional use of tracking or arc camera shots, but essentially, Fences is comprised of a series of lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes.
The interaction and chemistry between Washington, Davis and Henderson in particular, is first class, with exceptional performance from Viola Davis, but in particular, from the director himself.
Denzel Washington’s big screen career has been long and successful, but there have always been nagging doubts as to the quality of the roles that he’s found himself cast in. With the notable exception of films like American Gangster or more recently, Flight, Washington, arguably, has rarely found himself in truly weighty or demanding roles. This is something of an anomaly considering the man’s inarguably strong acting talents.
From his early appearances in the wonderful St Elsewhere, it was apparent that this was a man with both magnetic allure and substantial gravitas, clearly destined for big things. And so it has proved when you take into account that Washington is a continued major box-office draw. A commercially successful actor, very much dining at Hollywood’s top table. But the role of Troy, in Fences, seems to have been an awfully long time coming. It’s a big role that makes great demands of a great actor, and in this case, brilliantly showcases the man’s abilities.
There are many reasons to heap praise upon Fences, but more than anything this is a film of performances. A film of complex characters portrayed masterfully – and none more so than Troy himself.