Playwright August Wilson’s adapted Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, is a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.
Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.
Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.
But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.
Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.
Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”
Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.
That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.
Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and threading the play’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.