Just how special was August Wilson's seminal stageplay Fences, part of the playwright's "Pittsburgh Cycle", to Denzel Washington? The actor, who can pretty much write his own ticket to whatever he wants, determined that his Tony Award-winning performance wouldn't be the last time he filled the shoes of Troy Maxson. Denzel set out to direct the powerful work himself, based on a screenplay by the late author who died in 2005. And while it took some convincing, he gathered together much of the original cast for a film version that is just as powerful, searing, and relevant as ever.
This is Denzel's third time behind the camera following Antoine Fisher and The Great Debaters, and it's his most accomplished work yet. That said, the strength of the film is in the acting. This is a true actors showcase, with Denzel, fellow Tony Award-winner Viola Davis, and the cast all offering powerhouse performances. It's meaningful because this is no featherweight material we're talking about. Every conversation rings with the sting of truth, as each character deals with various heartbreaks and disappointments; some not of their own making but many that are.
The film begins with a simple tracking shot, but in its simplicity it reveals a lot about the racial makeup of 1950s Pittsburgh, especially in the workplace. Troy and his pal Bono (the excellent Stephen Henderson) are trash collectors, riding along their route shootin' the sh*t the way so many longtime friends and co-workers do. A quick flash shows us the driver, who is white. Troy wants to be a driver someday, but knows the odds are stacked against him. It's a microcosm of everything he's faced all of his life. For Troy was once a great Negro League baseball player, but never got his shot at the Majors because of the color barrier. While that barrier may be broken, it came too late for Troy who is now aged past his prime. The bitterness weighs on him like a dead weight; it sits on his shoulders, slumping Troy's powerful, intimidating frame.
More imposing than Troy's physical presence are his words, and Denzel is faithful to every cutting comment that comes out of his mouth. While he mostly has nothing but love for his faithful, stalwart wife Rose (Davis), his venom is often saved for his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling jazz musician who always turns up on pay day; and his ambitious young son Cory (Jovan Adepo, who wasn't part of the stageplay cast) who has hopes of playing college football, if only Troy would stop getting in the way. Also frequenting the home and in need of Troy's help is his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered brain damage in WWII. He's often seen wandering the neighborhood, getting into trouble that Troy has to pay for. The stagnation in their lives permeates every single conversation.
Along with idleness there is pain; an incredible amount of pain these characters experience that makes the film uncomfortable to watch. Troy's self-destructive behavior, which he covers in a hail of inflammatory rhetoric and tall tales, doesn't just consume him but the others around him. In the movie's most devastating scene, Viola Davis gives a heartbreaking expression of what so many women of that era were going through, stuck alongside angry men out of necessity. If Troy's opportunity was stolen from him it's even worse for a black woman out there. You'll find no better performance by an actor and actress this year than by Denzel and Viola, and no better ensemble anywhere. Their years of experience with Wilson's words creates an ease most movies don't have and many stage adaptations fail to recreate.
While much of the film takes place in the Maxsons' backyard, only occasionally does it feel stagey and a little stiff. It's the strength of the talented cast that carries Fences to greatness, and every time Denzel and Viola square-off it's us who are left breathless in their wake. The film is a true labor of love, with Denzel fulfilling Wilson's wish to have the story adapted by a black filmmaker. You can tell he and the entire cast took that responsibility seriously, assuring Fences is as emotionally raw on screen as the stage experience.
Rating: 4 out of 5