As the sixth entry in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”, Fences is of the great American plays of the 20th century — an unflinching critique of the American Dream, those who dare to pursue it, and those who are deterred by the color of their skin. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a sanitation worker living in ’50s-era Pittsburgh, is one such case. A once promising baseball player, Troy was too old to lace up his spikes when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and his bitterness over being denied a fair shake has permanently jaded him. It’s a bitterness that informs not only his view of black men in society but also the ways in which he runs his own household.
Troy’s life is defined by routine: he goes to work, drinks a little too much with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), and hands his paycheck over to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) on Fridays. He has a grown son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), whom he chastises for being a freeloader. His other son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is still a teenager, and while it’s obvious he shares his father’s penchant for hard work and athleticism, he’s subject to even worse scrutiny than Lyons.
The dysfunctional relationship between Troy and his sons calls to mind Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), but while Willy Loman wanted his son to follow in his career path, Troy is actively making sure his boys don’t do the same. He demands that Cory ignore a potential football scholarship for a practical, “respectable” job at a grocery store. Whether the decision stems from a place of jealousy or genuine concern is a question that Washington and the late Wilson (credited here as screenwriter) investigate over the course of the film.
As Troy, the former ballplayer with a chip on his shoulder and a bottle in his back pocket, Washington is a force of nature. Reprising his role from the 2010 revival (which James Earl Jones originated in 1985), he’s once again tasked with molding the egotistical, abusive Troy into a tragic figure, and he does so in grand, bombastic fashion. Everything about Troy is overbearing, from his colorful storytelling and use of language to the way he demands respect without offering it in return.
He turns every teaching opportunity with Cory into an assertion of dominance. He chastises Rose for mishandling his money, reminding her that he is the family’s sole provider. Even in the film’s emotionally charged turning point, where Troy admits that he’s been unfaithful to Rose, he attempts to justify his actions by saying he felt trapped and unable to cope with the disappointment of their day-to-day life. It proves ineffective, of course, as Troy’s claims of responsibility and manhood come crumbling down around him.
Washington conveys much of the performance through body language. Watching him as Troy is akin to watching an aged tiger prowling around his cage at the zoo — slower, perhaps, but still able to strike at any given moment. The only time we see Troy in a weakened state is when Rose informs him of his mistress’ death via childbirth. With the camera placed at a high angle, Troy slumps against the desk in his bedroom; his grey hair (otherwise covered by a brown cap) and expanding waistline on full, unflattering display. This physicality reaches a breaking point in the climactic fight with Cory, who, while quicker and younger, proves no match for the rage of his drunken father.
Opposite Washington, Viola Davis provides a more subtle and plainspoken performance. Initially, she is the film’s peacemaker, smoothing over Troy’s volatile relationships with his sons and proving a worthy foil to his inflated persona. But as the story of their marriage unfolds, the center of gravity slowly shifts in Rose’s direction. The monologue she delivers upon learning of Troy’s infidelity is both an emotional low point and a dramatic high point in the film — a teary, manic outburst so raw that it’s painful to watch. Washington may be the protagonist, but in her brief, Academy Award-winning role, Davis is the film’s heart and soul.
Behind the camera, Washington fails to match the sparks that play out in front of it. Oftentimes, it feels like he’s trying too hard to cram the strengths of the theatre into another medium. His camerawork lacks assurance, drifting around the characters in a given scene as if to capture the nuances and reactions one might spot during a live performance. Only here, they serve to break the natural pacing and cadence of Wilson’s dialogue.
Further, the more we come to see of supporting characters like Lyons and Bono, the less they feel like real people. Whenever they are in Troy’s proximity, their sole purpose is to sit, ask questions about his past, and assert that they need to be leaving soon. While these archetypes pass as tradition on the stage, they feel artificial onscreen and undermine the characters that do come across as genuine.
There’s also the matter of Wilson’s screenplay. Completed before his death in 2005, it preserves most (if not all) of the play’s heavy-handed syntax. This results in every conversation becoming an allegory for a larger concern; a design that can prove exhausting. When Troy denies his son’s dream to play football, his explanation turns into a rant about segregation in professional sports. There are no emotions to be inferred, as they are addressed directly through the dialogue. This unwillingness to alter the script ultimately weighs down the film’s already lengthy runtime. Washington’s canonical approach to Wilson’s work is admirable in some ways, though one cannot help but wonder if a more daring approach could have trimmed some of the rougher, more episodic transitions.
Overall, Fences does manage to supersede these pacing flaws with themes that are universal to the nuclear family. The film pushes the audience to consider viewpoints outside of their own, to empathize with roles that are otherwise taken for granted: the working husband, the loving wife. To the world, they are simple and dutiful. But beyond the surface, and past the fences that guard their home, Wilson reveals that they too yearn for more.
“What about my life?!” Rose cries out, crystallizing the film’s thesis, “Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?!” Neither Rose nor Troy find an answer to this shared lament, but it is in their different responses that the film leaves its dramatic impact. While Rose accepts her responsibilities and makes peace with them, Troy is unable to let go of the bitterness and the hatred that has tarnished him for so long– he’s still looking for someone to blame.
If Death of a Salesman explores man’s inability to accept changes in society, then Fences shows what that same inability does to a man who refuses to accept changes within himself.
Fences does make a mildly stiff transition to the big screen. Still, with its resonant themes, and rich performances from Washington and Davis, the film version overcomes its flaws and makes for a powerhouse melodrama.
The Blu-ray release of Fences has a generous assembly of bonus features, including featurettes on the adaptation of the play (“Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen”), the production (“Building Fences”), and the challenges of playing a character on both stage and screen (“Playing the Part: Rose Maxson”). Still, the most telling featurette on the disc is “August Wilson’s Hill District,” which explores the career of the late playwright and his literary world. Its an illuminating portrait of a man who, even in death, remains the heart and soul of this film.