On stage, “Fences” is an incredible play — a landmark of American art (black or otherwise), August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of a family in crisis unflinchingly weighs the smallness of human lives against the immensity of those living them. And on screen in Denzel Washington’s adaptation, “Fences” is…an incredible play.
Starring and directed by the actor (who reprises the role he played in the show’s 2010 revival on Broadway, for which he won a Tony), the film is a faithful, ferociously performed adaptation that never finds — or even seeks — a way in which the cinema might compensate for the absent buzz of live theater. In fact, “Fences” is such a respectful tribute to the source material that Wilson retains sole screenplay credit despite the fact that he died 11 years ago. If Washington mines the playwright’s 1987 masterpiece for every scrap of its pathos, he finds precious little of its poetry.
But if “Fences” doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, it’s still a clutch double at a time when black stories are struggling to even get on base. Set in the 1950s and shot on the workaday slopes of Pittsburgh’s Hill District (where nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” take place), “Fences” cuts a private narrative from a public neighborhood, tracing the boundaries of race as they stretch between a traumatic past and an uncertain future.
Troy Maxson (Washington) is a garbageman by day and a Greek tragedy by night. Boisterous and hyper-talkative, his job renders him largely invisible to white society, but he’s impossible to miss at home, where his oversized personality fills every inch of the house he shares with Rose (Viola Davis), his stoic wife of 18 years. Every Friday afternoon, he and his affable best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) grab a bottle of booze and retire to Troy’s backyard. Roughly 90% of the film is confined to that small patch of concrete and humbled grass, as our belligerent protagonist summons dark stories from his past and bequeathes a lifetime of bitterness to his two sons (Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby).
Sometimes, the Maxson home is graced with the presence of Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), the only sibling who Troy still knows. Mentally handicapped during World War II and never without a rusty trumpet slung across his chest, Gabriel is a classic Shakespearian fool, a holy simpleton whose archetype almost always clashes against the verisimilitude of the movies. Here, the character feels out of place, and each of his scenes is a reminder of the liberties that Washington chooses not to take with the material, of the decisions that he defers to the iconoclast whose words he’s shepherding to a wider audience than ever before.
But if you choose to see “Fences” as an act of selfless preservation, as a dispersing agent for a work that was previously only available to privileged theatre-goers, it’s hard to fault. Washington, Henderson, Davis, and Hornsby are each “holy shit” great in their own ways, the four of them deepening the dynamics they forged together during their time on stage.
Troy is likened to “a shadow that follows you everywhere,” and Washington’s immense, lived-in performance makes the man a truly inescapable force of nature. Each of the film’s characters is a storyteller to some degree, but Troy might as well be his own oral historian, rambling on about his past in order to inject some divine grandiosity into a life that has been largely defined by its disappointments. Traumatized by his father, forged by the prison system, and marginalized by the outside world (where he was a black baseball player in the days before Jackie Robinson), Troy is at once both a disposable member of the underclass and a category five hurricane of humanity. His only way of reconciling those two wildly different feelings is to transmute his deficiencies and regrets into the stuff of myth — he might be the picture of the American everyman, but he’s also locked in a duel with Death, itself.
Washington conceives Troy as someone for whom hardness is easier than hope, a black man who can see the new world coming but knows that it isn’t coming for him — it’s coming for his boys. But how do you raise children to have all of your strengths but none of your weaknesses? How do you show them affection without making them more vulnerable to a world that has never welcomed you in it? How do you teach your sons to hold their heads high if you’re going to snap every time they stick their necks out? “Fences” doesn’t let Troy off the hook for not knowing the answers, but it never shies away from acknowledging the difficulty of the questions.
Like so many fathers who are haunted by their fathers, Troy uses money as an emotional currency — his relationships with his kids are purely transactional, he raises them with all the tenderness of a bank teller. One upside to the film’s numbing length and its exasperatingly flimsy sense of time is that it stretches long enough to see Troy’s kids grow around the pain that their dad visits upon them. In “Fences,” coming-of-age isn’t a beautiful metamorphosis, but rather a Biblical act of violence and usurpation, and Washington ensures that Troy always feels ready to sacrifice a son at the altar.
But this is Viola Davis’ show, and she rules it with an iron fist. Watching Rose come into her power is exhilarating, and Davis threads the needle between strength and survival with a remarkably steady hand. The forthcoming awards season will surely reduce her performance to its most intense moments, but Davis doesn’t spend the whole movie covered in the wet spit of her anger (as the film’s trailer might suggest). On the contrary, she’s liberated by not having to act for the people in the back row of a Broadway theatre. Her revised portrayal of Rose is a masterpiece of quiet grace; her restraint conveys the hurt of a thousand small cuts and the dignity required to let them scab over. She’s so good that it’s hard to blame Washington for not wanting to get in her way, for trusting that the close-ups he gives her would be enough of a spectacle to sustain Wilson’s work in a new medium.
They’re not — not quite. Wilson wrote the play to offer audiences a different way of looking at black Americans, but “Fences” doesn’t offer them all that much to see. It isn’t long before a moribund feeling begins to surround the Maxson’s backyard like a sinkhole, like you’ve been standing right there with Rose and Troy for all 18 years of their marriage. An emphasis on shallow focus might disguise the fact that so much of the movie is stuck in the same place, but it blunts the meaning of Wilson’s largely symbolic characters — Washington’s inability or unwillingness to use the camera as more than a recording device does a disservice to a story that’s so concerned with the interplay between daily life and the dreams that we measure it against. Rather than adding to the material, the film just makes you feel like you’re watching “Fences” through a screen.
But if its tempting to question how Washington chose to direct “Fences,” there’s no need to ask why, or “why now?” Even if certain elements of the material haven’t aged particularly well, the work as a whole has never been more relevant.
At a time when a percentage of the population needs to be reminded that black lives matter, “Fences” insists on their magnitude. It urges white viewers to see the scope of black lives elevated into view, and implores black viewers to see “the content of their lives elevated into art.” Wilson adopted the latter phrase as something of a mission statement, and if Washington doesn’t do much to expand on that ethos, his film nevertheless makes it easier for all of us to bear witness.
“Fences” will open in theaters on Christmas Day.