Fences is this fall's biggest effort to bring Broadway to the big screen, as the late August Wilson's most famous play is adapted into movie form. Surely a few nitpicks have already been made on whether Denzel Washington's work as a director opens it up enough as a movie, or if it just feels more like a filmed play. It certainly plays to the rafters like on Broadway, although that may be due to the big, bombastic and domineering persona Washington adapts in front of the camera.
Those who have already read and seen the play before, and those who saw Washington and Viola Davis already perform it in Broadway theaters years ago, will certainly see it differently than those exposed to it for the first time in a movie theater. From the perspective of a first timer, however, the initial power of the Fences experience is more than considerable, especially when embodied the most by Washington and Davis.
In 1950's Pittsburgh, former Negro League baseball great turned garbage man Troy Maxson lords over his home, his wife Rose, and their son Cory in particular. In between telling his stories about his old playing days and his encounters with "the devil", and his increased drive to build a fence around his yard, Troy steadfastly refuses to let Cory pursue his own sports career in football, refusing to believe for one reason or another that it will turn out any different than his own old career. But for all his proclamations about how the world works, and about how a man is supposed to act and to take care of his house and family, his blindness and crumbling excuses for his own shortcomings bring more pain onto his house and family than anything that any fence can keep out.
It doesn't take long to see exactly what one is in for from Fences, from the sets/stages of Troy's backyard and home, to the rapid fire dialogue from Wilson, and to Washington filling all of it out on screen through sheer size and overwhelming force alone. The stoic Washington who can afford to get away with coasting in action films like The Magnificent Seven and The Equalizer isn't here, showing the kind of life force he perhaps hasn't been able to show since Training Day, if not longer. In fact, this could actually be the closest Washington has come to being comedic, at least when it comes to Troy's humorous stories and halfway tall tales.
But of course, Troy's stories, performances and attitudes aren't a laughing matter for long, particularly when his son from a previous relationship interrupts his good times with Rose and best friend Bono by asking for money early on. Still, that is nothing compared to how rocky things are with his younger son Cory, especially when Troy answers the question of why he's never liked him.
Fences is one long tug of war when it comes to Troy, in making him a legitimate victim of racism, hardship and his time, and in making him a self-deluded, narcissistic and utterly blind fool all in the same breath. While he may make legitimate points and defenses for his actions, attitudes and harsh decisions in one minute, he is just as likely to be much more infuriating and indefensible in the next.
That is surely the exact point and intent Washington is going for, and what Wilson sought to make when he wrote Troy in the first place. In the process, Washington and Troy are so overwhelming and perhaps overbearing in casting such a domineering, all consuming shadow over everything, it can make the audience feel like the rest of the Maxsons and their friends as they struggle to endure in his path. Although this is certainly a sure fire way to make us relate to this story and this world, perhaps audiences may vary on whether they can put up with as much from Troy as his family has to.
But then again, it might be just as likely that they've endured a Troy like figure in their real lives and families as well. While Troy is specifically forged from the black experience of old, all kinds of people like him in real life have cast a long shadow over their loved ones, are made bitter from both legitimate and imagined grievances, make excuses for their own shortcomings whether they are legitimate or not, and embody some of the worst attitudes of their time even as they still make some genuine improvements from what came before them.
Fences has the power to make that relatable to viewers of all races, without sacrificing the distinct ways in which it is rooted in the African-American struggle of then and now. Even when Troy is too much to take at times, he cannot be ignored as a ghost of his time, and maybe one that still lingers in our time.
As much as Troy plays the victim in so many ways, and as much as it may be earned in a few of those ways, there are times he really has absolutely no leg to stand on. That becomes especially clear in the second half, when it is time to delve into the cost paid by his wife.
Troy may illuminate all the African-American men who were forged by hard and discriminatory times, and who were too late to reap the benefits or to even see the benefits of the Civil Rights era. But that is still nothing compared to all their wives and women who were even more forgotten, discarded and left behind by history, left with nothing to do but to put aside any dreams and individuality of their own and submerge themselves into their husbands, whether it was truly enough or not.
Davis already shed a light on one kind of forgotten, ignored and outwardly subservient African-American woman of the 50s/60s in The Help. Now she embodies another kind in Fences, even though Rose isn’t a maid, writer or someone who does menial labor for white people. Nevertheless, this is another kind of historically marginalized woman that Davis provides long overdue justice for, in a way that makes the Roses of the past and present hard to brush aside ever again.
In the opening half, Troy’s scenery chewing style is counteracted by Rose’s quieter approach, as she balances out and cuts through Troy’s words and actions in ways no one else has a chance to. The stillness, silent observation and reserved temperament of Davis is just the right antidote for whenever Washington goes a bit too overboard, although there are still enough signs that flicker to show a potential ticking time bomb in Rose as well.
Then in the second half, Troy manages to finally set it off. And when he does, Davis pretty much shows Rose’s soul coming apart before our eyes, even before saying a word. But then the words come to pour it on even further.
Washington puts on Fences’s biggest show of personality and will from the start, as he gets the lion’s share of big speeches, hypocritical contradictions and actor-friendly showcases. And yet it is Davis that takes Fences into the stratosphere, with at least three or four of what may be the most heart crushing moments of the entire year on screen.
Rose never fully escapes Troy’s shadow, has much of a chance to or has any desire left to do so, even when he crashes her entire world to the ground. For that matter, the real life Roses of the past and present likely ended up the same way or worse. Yet even in the midst of all that, it is the ultimate triumph of Fences that Davis takes Rose, and all those like her by extension, out of the shadows at long last anyway.
Washington’s shadow isn’t too big to allow that, and neither are Washington and Davis’s combined shadows enough to cover the rest of the cast. While this is really a six-character movie where two characters tower over the rest, there’s still more than enough room for impressive displays from Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s long time friend Bono, Russell Hornsby as his first son Lyons, and Jovan Adepo as his tormented son Cory.
The biggest scenery chewing in the supporting cast is certainly done by Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother Gabe, however. Yet this is also the biggest case of Fences being far too obvious and on the nose, in presenting a mentally handicapped character named Gabriel who literally keeps trying to blow a trumpet, and keeps going on and on about St. Peter’s gates and how judgment is coming. Between that incredibly far from subtle symbolism, and Williamson playing up Gabe’s disabilities like a Tropic Thunder comparison waiting to happen, the character is distracting enough to take one out of the movie in a way that nothing and no one else does.
When also taking into account an all too obvious use of thunder during a key tragic moment, and perhaps a bit too much work in deifying Troy at the end, it is clear Fences isn’t always able to keep its melodramatic elements under control. But with the kind of story and tightrope act that Fences has, that may be inevitable, and may make it more remarkable that it doesn’t lose its balance more often.
Fences is a movie that plays it as big as Broadway in theme, words, messages, history and acting. And yet for its grandiose approach and its grandiose main character, it still creates a real intimacy as it guides us into a world and time both far away and of the moment, to say nothing of the people in it.
Even if the movie is just a more affordable remake of Wilson’s play, Fences demands to be seen at any price. As a recreation of a time and place, as an exposure to a world and a family dynamic that may ring painfully true for those of any color or creed, as a way to highlight the experience of people that were discarded by history both then and now, and as a way to finally give justice, depth and understanding to such people, Fences opens up areas that have been fenced in for too long.
What it also opens up is Washington’s range in a way that far too movies have even tried to do in this current century, which says something that he had to make it happen himself. If that wasn’t enough, he also had to go and give Davis the most wrenching moments of her career on screen, which is certainly saying a lot.
Fences’s combined effect from Davis’s soul shattering arc, Washington’s own galvanizing achievement, and Wilson’s words and story is an unforgettable one, enough to bump it up to an official 9 score on the TMN.com scale despite being closer to an 8.5. Wider audiences of newcomers and Wilson/Fences veterans can see for themselves why that is starting on Christmas Day.