Fences

Adapted from August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences is about a struggling African American family in 1950’s Pittsburgh.  Denzel Washington plays the father, Troy Maxson, who was a talented baseball player in his youth but who never got the chance to play in the majors because of racism.  Now he is a garbage man, who wouldn’t make enough money to support his family without his brother Gabe’s, played by Mykelti Williamson, disability check.  Gabe was in the war and has a plate in head that renders him simple.  Troy’s teenage son, Cory, played by Jovan Adepo, has scholarship offers to play football.  But Troy discourages him because he does not trust the white man.

The film follows the family over years as Troy, a larger than life raconteur, who loves to make up stories about his encounters with an anthropomorphized death, holds court in his back yard on Friday nights after he gets his paycheck and a bottle of gin.  Usually joining him is longtime friend and co-worker Jim Bono, played by Stephen Henderson, and Troy’s first son from an encounter when Troy was younger, Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby, usually comes by to ask for money.  And then of course there is his long suffering wife, Rose, played by Viola Davis.

Family secrets are dredged up and old and new wounds opened.  Troy is a compelling figure, loud and boisterous and fun but his faults are equally outsized and they eventually drive away all the things that make his life worth living.

The age old problem with adapting a film from a play is that plays tend to be static, taking place in a limited number of locations and relying on dialog to advance the plot.  Characters in plays are often more articulate than is realistic.  Fences is no exception to this.  But somehow in this case you don’t mind.  For one thing August Wilson wrote the screenplay and used most of his dialog which is great and very descriptive.  Plus this is a really great cast.  Washington directs himself to a pitch perfect performance.  There are scenes where you can see in his eyes that he realizes that he’s made a mistake but he just can’t admit it so he doubles down.  Every week he takes his pay envelope home and delivers it to his wife, who leaves him only a small portion of it.  This is a situation he accepts meekly even though he seems like the kind of man who’d be too proud to adhere to it.

Viola Davis delivers one of her best performances here and believe me that bar is high.  Rose is a woman who sees her husband for what he is but who has dedicated her life to supporting him anyway.  Basically she’s satisfied, but every once in a while her bitterness comes to the surface, especially when he treats her particularly unfairly.

Fences is an actors’ showcase.  The cinematography is good as are the costumes and settings.  But those things are secondary to Wilson’s crackling dialog and a set of terrific performances

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