Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney
In 2010 Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play, Fences. They both went on to win the Tony Award for their performances as a married couple in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player who was too old to go professional and now works as a trash collector. Viola Davis gives another knockout performance as his wife, Rose. While Troy is out at work, she is the typical housewife who makes sure there is food on the table, the laundry is washed and hung out to dry, and takes on any other household chores. The culture and times are changing and Troy has a hard time accepting a new way of living from the way he was brought up and raised. He likes to claim that he wants a better life for his sons but he sure has a strange way of showing it to them.
Oldest son Lyons (Hornsby) is a jazz musician but doesn’t bring home the necessary steady income for his own family. Troy tries to claim he only stops by to borrow money. Youngest son Cory (Adepo) is in still high school and has huge potential for scholarships thanks to his skills at playing football. Troy is as stubborn as you would accept and drives a wedge between him and Cory when he insists he works instead of chasing his dreams as a football player. The household dynamic continues to spiral out of control as Troy’s life choices of past and present haunt the life Rose thought she had and what’s at stake for her family. As you can imagine, Troy is not one to accept responsibility or show when he may be wrong no matter how it affects Rose, Lyons, or Cory.
The play Fences is part of August Wilson’s epic The American Century Cycle which consists of ten plays about the African-American experience set in different decades in the twentieth century. It’s the first of his plays to be adapted into a feature length film, and it’s only appropriate to have Denzel Washington be the man to bring it to life. Wilson had insisted on having an African-American direct the film, and Washington has lived with this piece having tackled in on stage. Wilson himself wrote the screenplay before he died in 2005 with some touch up dialogue added by Washington.
Whenever you take a staged play to the big screen, you’ll oftentimes find added characters or location changes to expand on the universe of the play. Sometimes when plays are contained to small spaces, the power in some key moments and scene breaks don’t always translate well to the screen. See the movies versions of Proof or August: Osage County where it just doesn’t work as well in a new medium. I haven’t seen the staged version, but Washington seems to find the balance between the two. The movie seems extremely faithful at keeping it as in tune as possible. The action of the play takes place entirely in the backyard of the Maxson house. Washington keeps a majority of the film there. We do have some moments inside the house to give an insight into the work Rose does to provide for the family as well as some transitional moments in the streets outside to get a feel of the neighborhood. It’s a poor neighborhood, but there is a sense of community present with kids playing ball in the street and neighbors chatting away on their porches. With the story being primarily contained within the backyard, you feel the intimacy of the play while the expansion helps gives a bit of context as to the life that surrounds them.
The movie is driven by Wilson’s dialogue. Troy’s past and current viewpoints are all set up in how he talks to his friend and coworker, Bono (Henderson) as well as how he treats the members of his family. As a director, Denzel Washington wisely trusts in the dialogue. He lets it speak for itself, not only in terms of how the story is presented, but knowing that it gives the actors plenty to work with in terms of getting the audience to go on the emotional rollercoaster of Troy and Rose’s marriage. If you’re not paying attention you could miss vital exposition, which sets up why Troy is as volatile as he is towards Cory and Lyons.
Washington gets into Troy’s skin so deep that the audience aptly grows uncomfortable with the character. It’s a brutish performance when you step back and realize why you dislike Troy so much. He has that “man of the house” type of mentality where he is far superior to Rose or the boys. Washington makes it jarring to hear Troy refer to her as “woman” instead of using her name. There’s an unsettling aura about their relationship that was common in the ideology of the culture in the 1950s. Troy is a great reminder of the kind of performances Washington can give when he’s not doing standard action films like The Equalizer or The Magnificent Seven.
Washington has kept many members of his Broadway company including Davis, Henderson, Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson. Williamson is probably best known for playing Bubba in Forrest Gump, but his work as Troy’s mentally challenged brother Gabe is worthy of all of the accolades. He gives a tender and beautiful performance as someone injured in the war and has had lasting affects due to brain surgery. There is no question as to why Viola Davis won the Tony. I can only assume she commanded the stage as Rose just as she demands you to take notice of her on screen. Rose has tried to live a simple, yet determined life. Troy makes that very difficult for her. There’s a game changer that comes into play for her leading Davis to open her soul out on screen. There are some dynamic confrontations between her and Washington, and it’s an honor to watch them square off against each other. I can only hope that Davis can add the Oscar to her mantle next to the Tony and the Emmy she’s already won for her work on How to Get Away with Murder.
If Fences is any indication, Denzel Washington should continue his work on Wilson’s Cycle plays. He shies away from making them overly cinematic and stays true to the language Wilson used so poetically in his plays. The movie requires a bit of patience from the audience to stay invested in a wordy film without constant action sequences to carry them along. The camera work is kept simple and still to capture the power play at hand as Rose tries to keep everything in the balance for her family to counter the undoing at the hands of Troy. Washington easily brings out the tension and heated arguments thanks to the exceptional performances from his cast. Davis, Washington, and Williamson standout among some of this year’s finest.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Hopefully Denzel and Viola’s staggering performances will bring August Wilson’s work and themes to a new audience.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS