I love many things about movies, but perhaps nothing more than watching great actors and actresses ply their trade. And when top-tier performers are given meaty, robust material to work with, the results are often spellbinding. A prime example – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the riveting family drama “Fences”.
The film is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. The play was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring both Washington and Davis. Both would win Tony Awards for their performances. Although Wilson had penned a screenplay, his insistence on an African-American director left a film adaptation in limbo. Washington’s stage experience with the story inspired him to star in and direct the film version (his third time in the director’s chair).
“Fences” begins in 1957 Pittsburgh and tells the story of the Maxson family. Troy (Washington) works on a garbage truck with his life-long friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson who, along with many other cast members, also starred in the Broadway revival). Troy is a particularly prickly character. He’s a man bruised by his past and bitter from racial inequalities both realistic and imagined. His wife Rose (Davis) is the anchor of their relationship. She’s a soothing presence, a voice of reason, and often times a peacemaker between Troy and their teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo).
Washington doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots. The film feels very much like a play. It’s thick with dialogue and the vast majority of it takes place at the Maxson’s home. That may push away those hungry for something more traditional, but Washington knows the richness of his material. He doesn’t force any kind of cinematic gimmickry. Instead the performers (Washington included) take the ball and run which is the only way this story should be told.
We the audience get most of our information by listening in on the many lengthy conversations between characters – conversations filled with feelings, observations, or reflection. It’s here we see the many complex sides of Troy. Whether he’s playfully spinning a wild tale about wrestling with the Grim Reaper or reminiscing about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. Other times it’s Troy, the strict, tough-minded father more interested in “doing right” by his children than loving them. As wordy as they sometimes are, every conversation is rich with meaning and substance. They are always shedding another layer to these characters.
The further the story goes the more darker and painful it becomes. In one particularly tragic scene, Troy’s consuming bitterness and stubbornness drive him to exclaim “I can’t give nothing else.” At the same time there is a level of sympathy as Troy is a scarred product of his past. At one point he laments to his wife “You’re the only decent thing that’s ever happened to me.” And the story subtly looks at the cyclical nature of life. The question is will Troy be the one to finally break the cycle?
“Fences” is lively and vibrant yet aching and tragic. The cast’s rapport carries over beautifully from stage to screen and their handling of August Wilson’s characters comes from an understanding far deeper that simple familiarity. Washington and Davis let it rip and should be getting a call from Oscar, but the supporting cast is just as vital. Henderson, Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson – all essential pieces to the telling of Wilson’s story. In the end, it’s this rhythmic force of dialogue and performance that makes “Fences” such a powerful and soul-piercing experience.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS