FILM REVIEW – FENCES. With Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Russell Hornsby, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson. Written by August Wilson. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references. 138 minutes.
The late August Wilson was one of the giants of the contemporary American theater, with plays like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Fences,” all part of a ten-play cycle that depicts African-American life across the twentieth century. He wrote with humor but was unflinching towards the reality his characters faced.
FENCES is set in the 1950s. Troy (Denzel Washington) once played baseball in the Negro League but is now a garbage man in Pittsburgh where his highest aspiration is get a promotion to driver of the truck. He’s a man who’s had a tough life, as we slowly find out, and is limited by the society around him as to what he can do about it. In spite of the fact that it’s a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, Troy tells his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to stay out of sports, because he’ll only be allowed to go so far.
His wife Rose (Viola Davis), puts up with his exaggerated stories about fighting the Devil, or engaging in a little end-of-the-week drinking, because he works hard and supports his family. Yet he treats his older son Lyons (Roger Hornsby) with contempt for pursuing a career as a musician. When Lyons comes by needing a loan, Troy berates him until Rose advances the money.
Troy’s weakness causes him to look for ways to assert himself, whether it’s cheating on Rose, refusing Lyons the loan–or the dignity of paying it back–or sabotaging Cory’s opportunity to make a name for himself in school sports. He is a tragic figure, beaten down by the system and taking it out on those around him rather than fighting back.
As such, “Fences” is a powerful drama, and the cast–particularly Washington and Davis–are strong. A scene were Troy harangues one of his sons is doubly sad, both for the metaphoric fence it builds between them, and because Troy can’t even understand that he’s lashing out as means of maintaining his own self-respect. Washington can be mesmerizing and it takes a strong performer of Davis’s caliber not to be blown off the screen by him.
All this makes “Fences” worth seeing. It does not, alas, make it a good movie. Washington, who directed, has taken the screenplay adaptation–attributed to Wilson, who died in 2005–and simply staged it for the cameras. This is a filmed play, not a movie, and the rare moments outside of Troy’s house or backyard fails to “open it up.” Indeed, such dialogue-driven material is ideal for the stage, which belongs to the playwright and the actors. On the big screen, though, it comes across as static and at almost two-and-a-half hours, that can be deadly.
Bringing Wilson’s plays to wider audiences is a good thing. “Fences” preserves the drama, if not quite translating it into film. It will be an ongoing challenge to those who attempt to adapt his other works.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.