Fences—Denzel Washington directed and stars in this filming of August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer winning drama. He plays Troy Maxson, an African-American garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh with a soul full of unresolved fury.
A superb baseball player as a youth, he was too old to make The Bigs by the time Jackie Robinson had broken through. He resents both his older son, a musician, and his younger son, a high school football star, for pursuing their dreams. Preemptively certain that the racist deck will be stacked against him—or maybe just envious—he works to scuttle the younger kid’s prospects of playing college ball. Troy is also keeping a wounding secret from his beloved, long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) which leads to further heartache.
Working from a screen adaptation that Wilson completed before his death (reportedly with an uncredited rewrite by Tony Kushner), Washington doesn’t try to conceal the material’s theatrical origins. He only expands the locations a little from the play’s back-yard setting, and he certainly doesn’t tone down the heightened language and acting style. And as is often the case with movies made from one-set, small-ensemble plays, this was a shrewd move—the result is a highly satisfying focus on masterly performances.
There is fine work from the supporting cast, notably Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, Russell Hornsby as the elder and Jovan Adepo as the younger son and Saniyya Sidney as Troy’s youngest child. Stephen McKinley Henderson is particularly solid as Troy’s devoted, worried friend.
But they’re all secondary to Washington and Davis, who played the roles opposite each other on Broadway in 2010, and who clearly haven’t lost their rapport. They’re able to get across the ways in which grief and bitterness can become so ingrained in a person—or a marriage—that it can coexist quite comfortably with humor, civility, even affection.
Though polished and skillful, this movie is in no way groundbreaking as cinema, and it’s maybe a hair longer than it needs to be. But it’s a chance to watch, quite simply, two of the greatest actors in America, in their prime, in roles worthy of their abilities. The quiet, steady intensity of the stars makes Fences, at its best, almost hypnotic.