Running Time: 138 minutes
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Featuring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney
Bono: “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”
Denzel Washington as actor, producer and director brings August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play to the screen from a screenplay Wilson wrote before his death in 2005. This film is not only a tour de force for Washington who won a Tony on Broadway for the same role, but also showcases Viola Davis in the role for which she too won a Tony. The film is about African-American characters, their emotional ties to each other and the world around them. It also brings to the screen characters that have only been hinted at in the past as well as highlighting Wilson’s amazing prose.
“Fences” is set In 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and works as a waste collector alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy’s older brother, Gabe Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), sustained a head injury in World War II that left him mentally impaired, for which he received a $3000 government payout which Troy used to purchase a home for his family. Gabe has since moved out, but still lives in the neighborhood, where he is often tormented by the local children.
In his adolescence, Troy left home and became a robber to sustain himself. After killing a man during a robbery led him to prison, he met Bono and revealed himself to be a talented baseball player. He then played in the professional Negro league baseball, but failed to achieve a career in Major League Baseball. Although it is likely that he was rejected due to his advanced age, Troy firmly believes he was passed over due to the color of his skin. Having survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia in his youth, Troy claims to have done so by defeating the Grim Reaper in a fistfight, upon which the Reaper vowed to return for a rematch.
The performances from all cast members is excellent and this is very much a character piece, each actor is thrust into the center of the story at some point – but don’t be fooled this is very much Denzel Washington’s film, here he proves why he is the pre-eminent actor of his generation, both on stage and in the movies. Washington plays Troy with added weight, a small stoop and a lot of attitude that he has never let go of because of his childhood and the racism he has faced over the years. Troy also is hard on both his sons who are trying to get along and make the best of their new world – Troy through a misplaced idea of protection comes off as a selfish bully who wants to keep his family as victims of his perverted world view. This is possibly the most negative character Washington has ever played and he offers no hint of salvation, right to the bitter end.
Viola Davis as Rose, feels like she was born to play this part as the wife who has put up with her husband, Troy, for years, all of his bluster, bravado and bullshit – she knows how to bring him back to earth and seems to ride a fine line as the matriarch and the grounding that holds not only the family but the home together as well. Rose at the end of the movie is very different to the character at that we are introduced to – after Troy’s betrayal Rose decides to make her own life a priority and focuses on her family – protecting those with the fence.
This film whilst focusing on both racial and family issues is centered in one geographic location and watching this film is very much like watching the play – there are very little wide shots and most of the film is shot in two shots and close ups – in fact when the camera moves it is actually quite jarring and out of place, which is a little odd, but this was a rushed production and I think this shows onscreen. The film while true to the play is not cinematic in the least, and that is a shame and has to be squarely placed at the feet of Washington and producer Scott Rudin. It is great to see this story finally on the big screen but it would have been fantastic to see some sweeping shots or some external forces placed on the family. As an adaptation and a character study that relates to racism in America and the familial damage that this causes this is first rate, however as a film in the medium it could do with some work.
This is not to say that I do not recommend, in fact I do – this is an important film and should be embraced as a work of art and can show how the written word is so powerful and why it has been such a hit on Broadway. There is also a reason that top actors are drawn to this play and that is because August Wilson was one of the great American playwrights and it is a duty to see his work whenever possible.