Denzel Washington, director
August Wilson, script
Starring: Denzel Washington(Troy), Viola Davis (Rose), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory), Russell Hornsby (Lyons), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel), Saniyya Sidney (Raynell)
Prejudice can take many forms. In the case of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), waste collector in 1950s Pittsburgh, his story isn’t even impacted directly by white people. They’re just there, behind the scenes, while Troy tries to make a living for his wife Rose (Viola Davis), their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and, to some extent, his older son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and mentally impaired brother Gabriel (Mykelti Wiliamson). But his life—and their very existences—are utterly affected by the racial boundaries that affect them.
Fences, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about the Maxson family set in his hometown of Pittsburgh, is all about the enclosures that affect lives. Troy was a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues before Major League baseball became integrated. Instead of being a wealthy retired star, he’s a has-been, a garbage collector who was great in a league even black people want to forget.
Troy is a bitter man, who can’t accept his successes and is haunted by the failures that held him back. He has a house, a wonderful wife, a great friend
(Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Jim Bono) and a couple of sons who love him. But it’s not enough—and he can’t accept their love. Troy spends his time drinking and reminiscing and building a fence in his backyard. He’s angry and tough, filled with rules that keep him apart from the people who respect and love him.
Fences is a classic American tragedy, comparable to the best of Arthur Miller, David Mamet, William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Troy is the blind hero, so overcome by the forces that made him that his fate is inescapable. He will inevitably lose everyone because he can’t understand himself until it’s too late.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won Tony Awards for their performances as Troy and Rose in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences. They’re brilliant here, leading a superb ensemble cast. This film is an instant classic and will undoubtedly have a long life as a drama that can be screened to high school students.
August Wilson insisted that a film version of Fences could only be made with an African-American director and Denzel Washington has done quite a good job in that role, with one major proviso. Fences is very stagey. It’s not a matter of “opening up” the play. Washington has put in scenes in a bar and on the waste collection truck. The problem is intrinsic to the play. Wilson was a great writer of monologues. His love of language trips up Washington as it would any director. The film is naturally slow and clunky; it is rarely cinematic. To truly enjoy Fences, one has to accept seeing a great play transferred holus-bolus into a permanent cinematic recording.
If you’re willing to take Fences as a great piece of filmed theatre, you’ll love it. If not, you’ll be frustrated.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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