Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016)
The great American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) may no longer be physically of this world, but his work, which discusses issues of race and family, among other topics, very much lives on, as relevant as ever. His best-known plays include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (1990) and the Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning Fences (1987), now on the screen courtesy of actor-turned-director Denzel Washington, whose third outing in that role this is, after Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007). Before his death, Wilson insisted that only an African-American director would be able to do justice to the story, and though it took over 10 years for that to happen, the wait was worth it. Washington, working from a script by Wilson, himself, delivers a raw and powerful movie that may not entirely escape the conventions of a stage play, but is filled with vibrant performances from actors – including himself – at the top of their craft.
Joining Washington are select other members from the 2010 Tony-winning Broadway revival, including Viola Davis (Doubt) as his wife, Rose. The time is 1957, and Washington plays Troy, a fiftysomething husband and father of two, who works as a garbage collector, a job he fell into after an early promising baseball career didn’t pan out, a fact he blames on the racism of the pre-Jackie Robinson era. His and Rose’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers) is approaching the end of high school, and his pending adulthood is a source of increasing strife at home, especially since he seeks a football scholarship, a hope that Troy denigrates, believing that “the white man” will never offer any African-American any real opportunity: life is what you make for yourself. His older son Lyons, (Russell Hornsby, Grimm), from an earlier marriage, sometimes stop by (on payday) to ask for money, since his gigs as a musician don’t pay the bills. Though Troy never wants to help out, Rose insists, which keeps Lyons coming back every week. Added to the mix, as well as, are Troy’s best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, The Romans) and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, Justified), who has never been the same ever since a head injury sustained during World War II left him with a metal plate in his head. The story revolves around everyone’s interactions, mostly taking place in and around Troy’s and Rose’s home and backyard (where Troy and Cory are building a new fence).
Much of what drives the plot is a meditation on the nature of family, and of the challenges that face a black man as he strives to find his place in a world where the rules have been made by whites. Troy is by no means a kind patriarch, though he does his best to provide for his wife and son. Rose softens him, and part of what is lovely in the film is the intense connection between Davis and Washington, who imbue their characters with the history of a long relationship filled with a lot of work, but also a lot of love. When, in the second half of the story, something happens to fundamentally alter the nature of their partnership, it comes as a bit of a shock, since their connection previously seemed so genuine. But gender is another underlying theme here – how men and women see their roles as fathers and mothers, and how they handle the disappointments of life – and slowly Wilson shifts our focus from Troy to Rose, while never losing diminishing the pain that makes Troy behave as he does. Though perhaps not always as cinematic as one might wish it to be – trapped as it is, most of the time, in one location – Fences is still a moving tribute to the trials and tribulations of African-Americans in the decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as to the journey of one particular family through their own personal challenges at home and within themselves.