Fences gives Denzel Washington and Viola Davis strong meat to chew on in this engaging adaptation of August Wilson’s play.
August Wilson’s play Fences premiered on Broadway in 1987 to critical and audience acclaim that’s lasted for almost thirty years. Denzel Washington revived it in 2010. Now, six years later, he’s taken Wilson’s play and turned it into his third feature as director. Already a timely look at the African-American experience in the 80’s, Fences is one of the most prescient movies out now. Powerhouse performances from Washington and (hopefully Academy Award-winner) Viola Davis make this an honest and heartwrenching adaptation of an American masterpiece.
Troy Maxson (Washington) has spent seventeen years of his life working as a garbageman and raising a family. But personal disputes and regrets can’t remain hidden forever, causing Troy to question the nature of his life.
Wilson’s play is adapted almost verbatim. It’s packed to bursting with themes on individual identity, the roles of family with regards to gender, and how we mitigate our own dreams for that of a greater good. The Maxsons’ lives are average, not just to the African-American experience of the 1950’s, but to nearly every lower middle-class person today. They don’t have stacks of money, but they’re as content as they’re going to get.
For Troy, however, this contentedness isn’t enough. In a role originated by James Earl Jones, Washington is a natural as the gregarious Troy Maxson. A man “born too early,” Troy is larger than life. His stories are contagious manifestations of his hopes, dreams and failed aspirations. Their infectiousness leaves other characters – Davis’ Rose and Stephen Henderson’s Bono – rolling their eyes. They’ve heard these before, but they’re unable to avoid laughing and being swept away. Blessed (or cursed) with a set of principles he imposes on others, Washington deftly compliments Troy’s ebullience with aggressive intimidation, predominately aimed at his sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby).
Shades of The Best Years of Our Lives or the 1970’s slice of life films are embedded within Fences‘ setting. There’s no overarching narrative as opposed to presenting a day, or several years, in the life of this family. We’re treated to the Maxsons at their best and their worst, with varying shades in between. Troy and Rose can be arguing one minute, and immediately start acting cute the next. Wilson and Washington capture the domesticity of the average family, writ large. The Maxsons argue, about infidelity, money and values, but there’s never an ounce of love lost.
It helps that the ensemble cast dynamic that works so well in the play is transferred here. Alongside Washington’s performance (shades of Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun shine through) is Viola Davis’ emotionally charged rendition of Rose. Depending on the actor’s portrayal, Rose can be meek or tough. Here, Davis covers the two traits with a lived-in characterization as real as the people in the audience.
Rose hates that she caves into Troy’s charm, but also knows when to say enough is enough. Davis’ big speech to Washington’s Troy after he reveals something to her is as emotional as it is a mustering up of all her character’s courage. Davis takes all the amazing performances she’s given in her career and translates them into one that should be more than enough to garner an Oscar.
The rest of the cast is equally compelling with no one wasted. Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby present two halves of Troy’s personality as his sons Cory and Lyons, respectively. As Troy’s foil, Cory is the child geared towards greatness – stoking Troy’s fears for his son’s success and jealousy at it. The two come to loggerheads at several points, but none more so than their final confrontation which unleashes both characters’ mutual fury at each other.
Adepo conveys Cory’s frustration at not having a relationship with his dad, and the fear he’s looking into the eyes of the person he’ll become. Hornsby’s Lyons is the family’s dreamer, a man who “needs to eat, but I also need to live.” Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother Gabriel gives off a child-like sensitive core, his family upset at their inability to help him (or guilt at helping for their own selfishness).
From an acting standpoint, Washington is aces. His directorial work needs a bit more time to ferment. The film is beautiful to look at, but Washington employs fish-eye lenses and other gimmicks meant to display flair when the cake doesn’t need to be frosted more than it is. He also employs quiet shots of the neighborhood street, almost as if they’re meant to act as set changes. It’s hard to fully remove Fences‘ stage-bound history, and though Washington tries, he’s far from perfect.
In spite of the occasional directorial misstep, Fences is an outstanding adaptation of Wilson’s seminal play. Washington, Davis and the rest of the cast are utterly exhilarating!