If you don’t already know going in, it becomes quickly apparent that “Fences” was originally written for the stage. Denzel Washington’s directorial effort, based on a play by August Wilson, is set almost entirely around a modest brick home in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and his scenes are long, intimate and heavy on dialogue.
The rhythm and flow of “Fences” emotes a different kind of performance from its actors and a different kind of character exploration. “Fences” is not so much about watching what happens to its characters than watching how they deal with what has already happened.
Washington also plays his protagonist, a blue-collar garbage man in his early 50s named Troy Maxson. We meet him at work, hanging off the back of a garbage truck, talking to his longtime friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). The conversation flows from work to the walk home and finally to his backyard, where we meet his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis.
The topic of conversation varies but always seems to float back to Troy’s working-class-hero view of a world that doesn’t get it. He flirts with his wife, weaves enthusiastic and exaggerated yarns about encounters from years ago and when his 34-year-old musician son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) drops by to ask for a $10 loan, Troy gives him a lengthy lecture on the value of hard work before Rose finally gives her stepson the money herself. Some of his frustration is justified: He wants to be promoted to driver at work but laments that only the white employees ever get to be drivers.
His high horse seems especially precarious when it comes to his 17-year-old son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who aspires to play college football and is doing well enough to get attention from scouts. Troy goes out of his way to discourage his son, convinced that the white establishment won’t ever let his son succeed in sports.
As the scenes weave in and out, “Fences” paints a fascinating portrait of a self-made man, swallowed up in righteous indignation and eventually undermined by pride and bitter hypocrisy. The more we learn about Troy, the more we see the disconnect between the moral high ground he claims and the weaknesses of his true nature. His character takes hits when we learn why Troy wasn’t around to raise Lyons and the nature of the debt he owes his veteran brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson).
But the biggest conflicts and most powerful revelations involve his relationship with Rose, who has been smoothing Troy’s rough edges for 18 years. Their dynamic drives the plot of “Fences,” and as powerful as Washington’s performance is, Davis steals the spotlight on more than one occasion.
Washington and Davis won Tony awards for their work as Rose and Troy in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both actors in contention again come Oscar time. In his mannerisms and delivery, Troy is not far from the Washington we have seen in various roles over the years, but his performance here is amplified, unique and resonant. As mentioned before, Davis shines in several key moments, and though the supporting cast is more complementary, they each add their own graces to the effort (Henderson is especially endearing as Troy’s trusted friend).
The translation from stage to screen impacts the pacing of the film, and viewers used to the style and structure of a normal film might find things dragging a bit here and there. But for most, the quality of the performances and the power of the story will patch over any rough spots. “Fences” — which takes its name from the literal and metaphoric fence Troy works on throughout the film — is a riveting meditation on pride, family and personal weakness. It’s not the kind of film you forget easily.
Viewers should note that many racial epithets are used throughout the film that reflect the time period.
“Fences” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references; running time: 138 minutes.