Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references)
Running Time: 2:18
Release Date: 12/16/16 (limited); 12/25/16 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2016
One of the great American plays receives a faithful and powerfully performed cinematic adaptation in Fences. August Wilson's drama about the contradictory nature of man, as well as such a man's effect on his family, has been brought to the screen by director Denzel Washington, who also stars as the troubled and troubling protagonist Troy Maxson (a role he played during a 2010 Broadway revival). This is one of the actor's most accomplished performances.
Troy is the wounded heart and wounding force of the story, which is set in Pittsburgh during the early 1950s. He will accept no excuses from anyone for their particular lot in life, especially if one's need for help with that lot interferes with Troy's paycheck in any way, but he certainly has plenty of excuses for his own lot. He cannot and will not see them as excuses, of course. For him, they are simply reasons and, more importantly, the foundations for the assorted tales that he tells to anyone who will listen.
If you're in the vicinity of Troy when he gets to telling a story, it doesn't matter if you've heard the story before or if you have no interest in hearing the story in the first place. You will listen. He makes certain of it—not only because he'll scold you for not paying attention but also because his way of storytelling demands attention.
Washington is one of our most commanding presences on the screen. An actor of persuasive charm and elemental assertiveness, Washington is an almost too-perfect fit for the role of Troy. He's the sort of character who seems pitiable on account of his history, his present circumstances, and his unwillingness to take any responsibility for the place in which he has found himself. He could have been a professional baseball player, he insists, if not for the institutionalized racism of the league.
That's not enough for Troy, though. It's not just that he failed. He has to undermine those who have succeeded. In Troy's eyes, Jackie Robinson wasn't even that good of a player. He was just lucky. In his mind, Troy could have out-batted, out-run, and generally out-performed any of the African-American players who have come since Robinson, too. As for segregation and prejudice being the key factor in his inability to play professionally, there is also the matter of his age at the time he started playing. That fact is conveniently left unspoken by Troy, as well as anyone who knows better than to rile up his quick-to-flare temper.
He should be pitied, but he isn't. That's part of the character as written by Wilson (who receives a screenplay credit, since Washington, wisely, has decided to leave the text as is, while expanding the scope of the play's setting of a backyard). Troy's family and few friends love and, to varying degrees, respect this man despite his obvious flaws.
His second wife Rose (Viola Davis, who also played her role in the film during that Broadway revival) adores him. His elder, adult son—from Troy's previous marriage—Lyons (Russell Hornsby) still comes by the father's house on a regular basis—to ask for money, yes, but also because there's clearly admiration there. Troy's best friend Bono (an impeccably affable Stephen Henderson), who works with him as a garbage collector, has heard all of the stories—and even has been part of a few of the better ones—but still keeps on listening. Troy's younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was severely wounded during the war and has a metal plate in his head as a result (He carries a trumpet, believing he is the archangel of his namesake), worships the ground on which his older brother walks.
The only person close to Troy who questions the man is his younger son Cory (a very good Jovan Adepo), who is on track to receiving a football scholarship for college. Troy says he doesn't want his son to be as disappointed as he was on account of potential in sports. We—and Cory—can see through that rationale and imagine the more sinister reason for stopping his son from succeeding. Instead, Troy enlists Cory to build a fence around the backyard—not to keep others out but to keep his family in.
That, along with Troy's desire to become the first black garbage truck driver in the city (even though he doesn't have a license), is about all there is in terms of plot. This isn't a film about a story. It's about how these characters interact through the stories they tell themselves and each other.
We can see why all of these other people adore and admire Troy as much as they do, and that's primarily because of Washington's performance. It's a grand act of subversion on his part. In this role, the actor is channeling the best and brightest aspects of his screen persona, and then he amplifies them. Washington's Troy is a charmer, a born storyteller (Wilson's florid language is at its best when Troy details his various encounters and fights with Death), and a man who commands control of any space in which he is present. We're immediately pulled into his sphere of influence, and piece by piece, Washington, guided by Wilson's seamless revelations through dialogue, picks apart at the legend and virtues that this character has created for and assigned to himself.
The actor is matched by Davis, his eventual sparring partner as the story unfolds. Her Rose is also a storyteller, although the tale she tells is entirely internalized—of having a sturdy home (even though the roof is coming apart), a solid family, and, above all else, a good and decent and responsible man for a husband. When that illusion ends, Davis doesn't play it as simply being betrayed by Troy. It's the realization that Rose has betrayed everything she could have been by playing into the tale that she imagined for herself.
This is high drama, performed to the hilt as such, respectful of the source material, and obviously but unobtrusively cinematic (It's far more than "just a filmed play," considering how precise Washington is in camera placement and movement). Fences provides an excellent introduction for those discovering Wilson's play and a fine re-introduction for those who already know its brilliance.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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