Film has the ability to present a worldwide audience with noteworthy dramatic performances they might not otherwise see if the story was only presented live, on stage. “Fences” is an example of this. Director/star Denzel Washington reunited the majority of the Tony Award-winning 2010 stage production’s cast for the movie, making their portrayals available to a much wider audience than saw them on Broadway. The result is a moving drama led by Washington and Viola Davis, both of whom earned Tonys for their stage performances.
“Fences” is part of the “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays written by August Wilson and is the only one which he converted to a screenplay before his death at age 60 in 2005. All ten plays in the series examine African-American life during the 20th century.
Set in the mid-1950s, “Fences” presents the Maxson family, led by patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington), a city garbage collector. Most of the action takes place in the backyard of the Maxson home, where Troy’s devout and devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis) has asked him to build a fence. But, fences can protect and they can turn away. During the course of the film, Troy builds both a real fence and emotional ones, often not considering the choices he’s making.
In and out of the Maxson household and yard come a series of men who interact with Troy. High school-aged Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s son with Rose, hopes to win a college football scholarship. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is Troy’s adult, jazz musician son who was raised by his mother when Troy went to prison. Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) was left mentally challenged after a World War II injury. Bono (Stephen M. Henderson) is Troy’s best friend and co-worker; they met while in prison.
His family and friends love Troy and only want his love in return. But, the dropping of defenses to emotionally embrace others isn’t something he is capable of. Shaped by a dysfunctional relationship with his own father, Troy demands respect but very rarely returns it. Via bragging, flirting, arguing, or physically confronting others, Troy creates distance between himself and those around him. Unfortunately, he denies his part in estrangements and seems genuinely astonished when friends and family stay away.
Having performed these roles during the Broadway revival of “Fences,” it might be assumed the actors from the stage version have an “easy” time re-inhabiting their parts. But, this is a movie, not live theater. Film has its own demands. For example, it allows, and often needs, close-ups, placing every gesture and facial expression under a microscope. Audiences will find the intensity of Washington’s glare palpable as he challenges Death in the darkened backyard. And it’s hard to look away from Davis. With just one glance or movement she transmits Rose’s happiness, shock, or pain. Davis has some of the most moving scenes in the film.
The supporting performances are equally effective. Hornsby’s Lyons and Adepo’s Cory both bear emotional scars from Troy’s approach to parenting, yet still desire their father’s affection. Adepo has some especially strong scenes where he and Washington’s Troy are literally in each other’s faces.
Henderson’s Bono is Troy’s best friend and assumes the role of a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience, trying to warn Troy away from jeopardizing his family life. Bono’s good humor and deep concern are conveyed by Henderson in way that is at once subtle and clear.
And, as Troy’s mentally challenged brother Gabe, Williamson is sympathetic and never a caricature. He respectfully presents the war veteran’s attempts to use religious beliefs to cope with confusion and with his personal version of reality.
Production designer David Gropman captures the look of Pittsburgh’s 1950s Hill District neighborhood with its narrow, sparsely furnished homes. Troy’s backyard “man cave” features his tools, his baseball bat, and a batting practice ball strung on a tree branch. The small yard is where Troy holds court, telling “more stories than Uncle Remus” according to Bono, and reliving his days as a ball player.
While the backyard is Troy’s territory, Rose’s strong religious beliefs are expressed inside the house. A picture of The Last Supper hangs in the dining room, portraits of Jesus are displayed in the kitchen, and a cross hangs over Troy and Rose’s bed. Plus, Davis’ costumes include an ever-present gold cross necklace.
“Fences” is a revealing look into the life of a working class family. The Maxsons are African-American and, as Troy keeps reminding them, they encounter obstacles due to their race. But Wilson’s work, while addressing these challenges, does not focus solely on them.
Wilson’s screenplay presents both a look at the African-American urban experience in the 1950s and a timeless look at issues familiar to audience members no matter their ethnicity or gender or the decade- economic survival; inter-generational conflicts; the desire to improve one’s condition; choices and consequences; mistakes and missed opportunities; pain and forgiveness; and questions of faith and the meaning of existence. Through their performances in “Fences,” Washington and his cast leave viewers contemplating not only the fences Troy builds, but the positive and negative barriers we all are capable of creating.