In Fences, the titanic talents of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are once again on full display. The two reprise their roles from the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s play of the same name, for which each earned a Tony Award. The film certainly feels like a play, as the performances are very stylized towards the stage. Washington directs the film as well, making it his third feature, and first in nearly ten years. Though peppered with discussions of race relations in the 1950s, the core of the story focuses on the relationships between members of the Maxson family. Within this context, Fences explores the importance of responsibility, the strength and danger of a domineering personality, and the conflict between settling for something and seeking out your own desires in life. It is a small film, but packs quite a punch throughout.
Troy Maxson (Washington) works on the back of a rubbish truck with his long-time buddy Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) in 1950s Pittsburgh. Though Troy was once an exceptional baseball player in the Negro Leagues, he was considered too old to play in the majors once black athletes were permitted to join. Troy wears his bitterness on his sleeve, and never balks at an opportunity to disparage the white athletes with (what he considers) inferior talent. Mr. Bono is an affable brother-in-arms, and a real friend of the family. Throughout the story, he serves as a kind of moral compass and touchstone for Troy.
At home, Rose (Davis) does the housework and looks after her and Troy’s son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is a talented football player, but Troy cautions him against putting too much faith in sports, because “The White Man” can always move you from the field to the bench without any justification beyond your skin color. This is a real source of conflict and dramatic tension in the story. Troy also has an older son named Lyons and a brother named Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). Troy was absent from Lyons’ life for reasons that are revealed in a particularly powerful monologue, and Gabriel was wounded in World War II, and suffers from some mental health issues as a result.
The dialogue in Fences makes clear that the screenplay is derived from the stage. There are heavy monologues, stylized deliveries and performances, and very few set locations – all characteristics of the stage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but spectators who prefer a more natural style of acting may bristle at the performances in Fences for this reason. For my part, the actual performances are so strong that I hardly even noticed the stagey acting style after the initial scenes. I liken it to an actor speaking in a particular accent – if done well it, your ear will adjust; if done poorly it will bug you through the whole film. In the case of Fences, it is done very, very well.
Practically every performance in Fences is noteworthy. The ancillary characters will not receive the same acclaim that is destined for Washington and Davis, but each deserves accolade. Henderson is perfection as Mr. Bono; he is funny, affable, and a thoroughly likeable character. The young Jovan Adepo holds his own opposite Washington in some key sequences, certainly no easy task at all. Viewers will certainly recognize Williamson from his role as Bubba in Forrest Gump, and his performance here is equally heartbreaking and realistic. It is an astounding collection of acting talent, and a pleasure to witness.
Viola Davis and Denzel Washington each received Tony awards for their roles when they performed them on Broadway, and there is every reason to expect them to be in the Oscar conversations this time around. Denzel imbues Troy with a real larger-than-life aspect, one not too dissimilar from his second Oscar-winning performance as Alonzo in Training Day. As Rose states in a particularly poignant scene, he fills up the entire room with his personality, and leaves little space for others. He chews through long, meandering monologues and intimidating ultimatums as easily as he does moments of fragility and weakness.
Davis is able to stake her own claim as well, and is not overshadowed by Washington’s performance in the least. Her portrayal of Rose is perhaps more subdued and quiet than is Washington’s, but she nonetheless succeeds. In Rose, Davis has crafted a wounded character with palpable heart and strength, and witnessing the moments that she puts her foot down is an absolute gift. Her particular brand of sadness is also eminently relatable and understandable, and Davis places it all on screen. It is a great performance in a film filled to the brim with them.
Fences can boast multiple well-developed themes, chief among them being the desire to reach for one’s dreams. We see this theme develop from an antithetical idea, though: the malaise of a rut, of settling for the safe choices and only realizing the compromises much later in life. And yet, our characters are still able to seek new experiences and find happiness despite the difficulties in front of them. Tied in with this theme is a related one: the struggle to become one’s own person, whether that means becoming a man, pursuing a career as a musician, or realizing independence as a woman.
Race, race relations, and racism are a hallmark of the work of August Wilson. In Fences, such themes are left at the border of the story, but nonetheless inform much of what occurs. Troy repeatedly beats at the drum of his own unfortunate experiences with racism, chiefly in the form of his lamentations that he was robbed of playing professional baseball because of the color of his skin, and not his lack of ability. Though this is certainly a concern, and we are meant to believe that Troy was a great player, his insistence that this form of racism will continue unabated is repeatedly challenged by other characters. This is one area where Troy’s stubbornness is apparent, as he simply won’t accept that racial issues are changing, even if that change is tortuously slow.
Ultimately, though racism and other racial issues have informed the lives of each character in Fences in one way or another, this is not a story about racism (unlike the equally magnificent Loving, which has the evil of racism as a major theme). Fences is a story about family, responsibility, and recognizing and attaining one’s values. We easily empathize with these characters and agonize through their respective arcs, which suggests that the writing and the performances are equally magnificent. Indeed, Fences the film shall easily live up to the pedigree of its staged predecessor. It should count itself as yet another poignant film featuring a powerful performances from a unique perspective, and one of the absolute best films of the year.