Whether you have or have not seen August Wilson’s play “Fences” on stage, you will be rewarded seeing this film version (screenplay credited to the late Wilson), directed by Denzel Washington, who in addition sizzles in the role that he also played in the theater. The film has been mounted with all of the mighty power contained in Wilson’s dialogue and perspective on African-American life. You will also get the great, heartbreaking performance by Viola Davis, who reprises what she accomplished on stage.
Washington’s portrayal of Troy Maxson, who once dreamed of being a star professional baseball player at a time when African-Americans hadn’t yet broken into the major leagues, reaches the height of great acting. This is despite the fact that Troy's wounds in life have turned him into a mean-spirited tyrant at home who is hard to like even though Washington makes clear the obstacles Troy faced and the crushed past dreams he still harbors as he works on a garbage truck in Pittsburgh and promotion to that of driver would loom as a major accomplishment.
I have thought over and over of how a different acting tone could have made Troy more likable, but the lines he speaks make it clear that his performance is what the play dictates. Likable or not, Troy comes vividly to life via Washington’s acting skills, and as he talks incessantly and dominatingly, the words that pour from him have a poetry that exhibits the masterful writing that shone in Wilson’s work.
Davis, as Troy’s long-suffering wife, Rose, further illuminates the world that Wilson describes. She has obviously loved—and still loves—Troy despite the hardships they have faced. When she opens up and lets him have it in an impassioned what-about-me speech in contrast to his seeing life only through his own eyes, the effect is dramatically devastating. It is one of the great acting moments in this year’s cinema.
What’s especially upsetting is that when Troy confesses to Rose about his relationship with another woman, although he knows it will by deeply hurtful, he still insists that it is his right as a man with needs to have such a relationship. His double life is condemned by his friend, neighbor, and fellow employee Jim Bono, brilliantly played by the immensely talented Stephen McKinley Henderson, who sees the destructiveness toward Rose and to Troy’s own life.
Having an especially hard time is Troy’s teenage son Cory, given an expert portrayal by Jovan Adepo, who feels that his father doesn’t like him and bristles at his father’s authority in refusing to sign to let him pursue the possibility of a football career. We sense Troy’s competitive attitude that if he couldn’t make it, his son’s success would further diminish Troy’s life and battle for self-worth. The father-son scenes are especially poignant.
Other characters include Lyons, firmly played by Russell Hornsby, Troy’s son from a former relationship, who independently pursues a musical career, and Troy’s pitiful brother, Gabriel, given a sympathetic performance by Mykelti Williamson, who was left simple-minded by a brain injury when he was a soldier in World War II and now innocently keeps getting into trouble.
As a director, Washington opens up the locales just enough for movie purposes without destroying the intensity spawned by the stage concepts. Mostly the film is rooted in the Maxson home and yard. The story grows in intensity, and the way in which the life of Rose evolves has a brightness that leaves an affirmative feeling despite all that has gone before. Ultimately, Wilson also leaves us with a kindly perspective on Troy’s life in keeping with what Wilson has communicated in his series of works about the lives of African-Americans. His great writing is impressively carried through and evident in this compelling screen version of “Fences.” A Paramount Pictures release. Reviewed December 16, 2016.