August Wilson’s Fences tells the tale of a black family in ’50s Pittsburgh, centering on the clan’s domineering patriarch. It also resonates with a host of grandly American themes, from the bloody swell of history and race to the yawning gaps separating rhetoric and action, dreams and reality. It’s a big play, in other words, and requires considerable energy to bring it to life, on stage or screen.
This isn’t a simple requirement in the post-star age when there are few if any performers on whom studios are willing to stake an entire project. So, all the better that Denzel Washington takes on Troy, a role for which he won a Tony in 2010. It’s hard to imagine any other movie star of the current era who could even hope to inhabit this character’s furious self-determination without making it seem laughable.
Washington also directs the film, for which most of the 2010 theatrical cast is reunited. Like the play, his movie is set in Troy’s home and backyard, where a baseball hangs by a string from a tree branch and the fence remains unfinished. He keeps this handsomely but not showily photographed production tightly wound, all the better for Wilson’s arguments and soliloquies to build up a good head of steam.
Troy’s story opens as he arrives home from his job as a garbage collector, with his friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). A onetime baseball player who never lost his athlete’s swagger, Troy tells his stories as epics, his delivery both nostalgic and defiant. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) drifts in and out of the kitchen door, listening and nodding. His older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) comes by for a loan, it being Troy’s payday. The conversation drifts through baseball and work, as well as a couple of recurring subjects: what’s happening with Troy’s mentally challenged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a sweet soul who wanders the streets blaring a trumpet and eagerly awaiting Judgment Day, and the sore topic of Troy’s younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo) wanting to use his high school football career as a path to college. All the while, nobody is working on that damn fence.
Troy’s talking takes a variety of forms, from opinions and jokes to rants and memories. It’s all the work of a born raconteur who knows he has the audience (on screen and off) in the palm of his hand, in part because they’re able to see right off that in addition to his experience as a working man and father, he brings philosophy and self-righteousness. We can also see vulnerability and also a trickster’s flicker in his eyes. By the time Bono cracks, “I know you got some Uncle Remus in your blood,” it’s clear that there is far more going on behind Troy’s braggadocio than he lets on.
After the initial swell of dialogue runs its course and the plot settles into a more staid course, Wilson unveils concentric coils of tension that curl around each other. Troy has a speech for anyone who comes into his line of sight or says a word that hits him cross-ways. Lyons gets off easy, with a light ribbing about being a roustabout musician who only ever comes around when he wants money from his father. But whenever Rose supports Cory’s athletic and educational dreams — Davis’ steady then explosive performance providing a solid counterweight to Washington — Troy unwinds impassioned lectures about how the white world won’t let Cory get anywhere anyway and the sooner he realizes that, the better.
Wilson’s play, and Washington’s muscular version of it, resounds most strongly when it digs into the sources of Troy’s anger. He’s worn down by workaday domestic concerns (his long hours, his inability to finish the fence). But he’s also beleaguered by those two American constants, money and race. Troy is an escapee from a harrowing and impoverished Southern upbringing — a grim soliloquy on his past offers a rare window into his vulnerability — and a survivor of the differently punishing Northern racism that allows him few choices in life.
Troy’s bitterness overflows in recalling his dashed dreams of athletic glory from when he played baseball in the Negro Leagues: “What it ever get me? Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.” Rose tries to console him by saying he simply came along too soon to have a shot at the major leagues. She also tries to convince him that racial attitudes have changed, in ways that could help Cory. All her words, though, are like blunt arrows bouncing off the armor of Troy’s bitterness. He’s seen a hundred men play ball better than Jackie Robinson, he says. “Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make!”
When Cory makes the mistake of asking why his ever-raging father doesn’t “like” him, Troy responds with a hard kernel of truth and cruelty:
“Like” you? I go out of here every morning, bust my butt, putting up with them crackers every day, because I “like” you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. It’s my job. It’s my responsibility.
Here, Troy is laying down the hard reality of his existence as he’s lived it. Of course, his perspective blinds him to everyone else’s, as Rose explains in an explosive speech that makes clear just how much she has also sacrificed in order to allow this hurricane force of a man to bluster and berate and prowl in search of an antidote for his pain. The tragedy of Fences is two-fold. First, we realize that even a seemingly indomitable figure as Troy can be laid low. And second, we see who and what he will destroy before ever admitting defeat.