“Fences,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by August Wilson, was written in 1983 and had its premiere on Broadway in 1987. But the play is set 30 years before that, in a lower-middle-class black section of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, and when you watch it now, in the towering and impassioned screen version directed by its star, Denzel Washington, it feels like you’re seeing a work from a distant time, like “A Raisin in the Sun” crossed with “Death of a Salesman.” For long stretches, that slight period remove works for the movie: “Fences” is an anguished family drama forged out of an exotically old-fashioned sense of destiny. Yet if Wilson’s play is on some level timeless, only rarely does “Fences,” as a movie, hit you in the solar plexus with its relevance. It’s more like a long day’s journey into something weighty and epic and prestigious.
The central character, Troy Maxson, is a bedraggled patriarch with a backbone of pride that rules and defines him. Troy works as a trash collector, and when we first see him, finishing his Friday shift and coming home to greet the weekend the way he always does, by sharing a pint of gin with his grizzled co-worker, Bono (Stephen Henderson), he seems an ebullient and centered man. He’s devoted to Rose (Viola Davis), his wife of 18 years, and the sauciness of their back-and-forth teasing lets you know that the feeling is mutual. Troy is so thrifty he claims he can’t afford a TV set, but he has carved out a secure life for his family rooted in their modest brick house. He’s a man shrewd enough to keep his head down and feisty enough to have just asked his supervisor why Pittsburgh has no black sanitation drivers (a chancy question that winds up netting him a promotion to be the city’s first).
Much of “Fences” is set in the Maxsons’ small, cramped patch of backyard, but the film doesn’t feel stagy, because Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography gives it a crystal-clear flow, and Washington, as both actor and director, gets the conversation humming with a speed and alacrity that keeps the audience jazzed. Wilson’s dialogue is a marvel — soulful, naturalistic, and profane, at moments downright musical in the snap of its cadences. And Washington tears through it with a joyful ferocity, like a man possessed. Which, as we learn, is just what Troy is.
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He was once a professional baseball player, a star of the Negro Leagues, but it was Troy’s bitter fate to come along a generation before Jackie Robinson. He never found fortune or fame from baseball, and he can’t accept that the game is now opening up for others. When he dismisses the new black players — and Robinson himself — with a righteous harrumph, claiming that he’s better than all of them, his gripe is rooted in an honest perception of the racist past, but it’s also rooted in the bigheaded wrath of his own ego. Troy doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the success he was denied, and that includes his teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has an interview scheduled with a college football recruiter. It’s a doorway to opportunity, but Troy closes it as systematically as Laura’s mother crushes her down in “The Glass Menagerie.”
Troy thinks society will never change for the black man, so he turns that belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Of course, it’s also fused with his jealousy.) He comes on like an honorable fellow, and in certain ways he is, but he’s also an unreasonable hard-ass, like the Great Santini with a touch of King Lear. Washington’s performance keeps both sides of Troy in beautiful balance, so that he never seems more humane than when the full extent of his demons is revealed.
“Fences” has passages of fierce and moving power, but on screen the play comes off as episodic and more than a bit unwieldy. As other characters show up, each sheds a ray of light on the real nature of Troy. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his grown son from a previous relationship, is an easygoing musician who wants more out of life than working a job of grungy drudgery like his father’s, and when he asks Troy for $10, Troy refuses him. His parsimoniousness is a point of pride, and to some degree a valid one, but it’s also rigid and didactic. Then there’s Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who returned from World War II with a metal plate in his head and without all his marbles. Troy took Gabe’s $3,000 disability payout and purchased the house with it, and the energy he pours into justifying that action is a clear sign of how much guilt there is eating away at him. Williamson does a lyrical piece of acting as Gabe, whose mind is half-gone but whose radar picks up on things he isn’t aware of.
The acting is all superb. At the moment Troy’s selfishness is fully revealed, Viola Davis delivers a monologue of tearful, scalding, nose-running agony that shows you one woman’s entire reality breaking down. For a few shattering moments, when she talks about her family of half-brothers and half-sisters, it drags the fallout from America’s racist past right into the glaring light of the present. Yet a drama like this one should build in power, and after a while it begins to dissipate. There’s a resonance to Washington’s performance as a man who has tried to stand up to a daily hurricane of injustice, only to end up betraying his family and himself. But the film has a top-heaviness as well: the gravity of “importance” that can weigh down an awards-season contender. As you watch “Fences,” there’s never a doubt that these lives matter, and that’s a good and noble thing, but you’re also aware (maybe too aware) of how much the movie itself wants to matter.