Troy (Denzel Washington) and his long-suffering wife, Rose (Viola Davis)
“Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”–from Fences
Fences, a film adaptation of the celebrated 1985 drama by playwright August Wilson (1945-2005), is about a man whose anger and bitterness results in tragic consequences for himself and those around him.
It is 1957, and 53-year old Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh. Troy is African-American, and he once tried unsuccessfully to get into major league baseball, well before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Troy is still bitter that circumstance and discrimination caused him to fail at making a name in sports.
Now his son Cory wishes to enter college through a football scholarship. But Troy, mired in his own past, discourages the young man from aspiring to a future that he himself could not achieve.
What I’ve given you is the bare-bones of the plot. There’s so much more that you can only experience by watching, listening, and immersing yourself in the wonderful language of August Wilson. That’s the true delight of Fences; language rules this story and is most beautifully exemplified through the exchanges between Washington and character actor Stephen Henderson, who plays Troy’s friend Bono. Henderson, better than anyone else in the film, puts across the rhythm and music of Wilson’s dialog. His interplay with Washington feels like jazz improv between two seasoned musicians.
In addition to the aforementioned players, Viola Davis delivers a powerful supporting performance as Troy’s wife, Rose.
The title of this film, Fences, aptly describes Troy’s relationship with others. Throughout the course of the story, he is engaged in repairing a fence that surrounds his home. Meanwhile, we see him building a barrier around his heart which serves as protection from family, love….and ultimately, from life itself.
Fences is one of ten plays by Wilson known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The playwright set each one of his dramas within a specific decade of the 1900’s. The entire group is meant to convey the African-American experience of the 20th century. I have listed all ten plays as follows, with synopses (provided through http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php):
- Gem of the Ocean (2003) – 1900s: “Citizen Barlow enters the home of the 285-year-old Aunt Ester who guides him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones.”
- Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) – 1910s: “The themes of racism and discrimination come to the fore in this play about a few freed African American slaves.” Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – 1920s: “Ma Rainey’s ambitions of recording an album of songs are jeopardized by the ambitions and decisions of her band.” (Please note that Ma Rainey was a historical figure who was a precursor to blues artists like Bessie Smith). Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
- The Piano Lesson (1990) – 1930s: “Brother and sister Boy Willie and Berniece clash over whether or not they should sell an ancient piano that was exchanged for their great grandfather’s wife and son in the days of slavery.” (Note: TV/movie actor Charles S. Dutton played Boy Willie on Broadway in this play, and also was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.) Won Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
- Seven Guitars (1995) – 1940s: “Starting with the funeral of one of the seven characters, the play tracks the events that lead to the death.” Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
- Fences (1987) – 1950s: “Race relations are explored again in this tale which starts with a couple of garbage men who wonder why they can’t become garbage truck drivers.” (Note: To date, the only play of this series that has been adapted for film) Won Pulitzer Prize and Tony.
- Two Trains Running (1991) – 1960s: “Looking at the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, this play details the uncertain future promised to African Americans at the time.”
- Jitney (1982) – 1970s: “Jitneys are unlicensed cab drivers operating in Pittsburgh’s Hill District when legal cabs won’t cover that area. The play follows the hustle and bustle of their lives.”
- King Hedley II (1999) – 1980s: “One of Wilson’s darkest plays, an ex-con tries to start afresh by selling refrigerators with the intent of buying a video store. Characters from Seven Guitars reappear throughout.”
- Radio Golf (2005) – 1990s: “Aunt Ester returns [from Gem of the Ocean] in this modern story of city politics and the quest from two moneyed Pittsburgh men to try and redevelop an area of Pittsburgh.” Won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
Note: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen Henderson starred in a 2010 stage revival of Fences before Washington brought it to the screen as director and producer (with producers Todd Black and Scott Rudin). It is the only play from the “Pittsburgh Cycle” that has been adapted as a feature film.
Pluses: Excellent performances from supporting players Henderson and Davis. Although not a perfect adaptation, this film encouraged me to scope out Internet stage productions of the drama.
Minus: Unfortunately, this adaptation does not fully deliver the intensity of the staged play, and some sections are a bit tedious. I have not seen any of Wilson’s plays live, but I took the time to watch a filmed staging of Fences on the Internet (not the stage production with Denzel Washington) prior to writing this review. Even with the online filter, the staged version was more powerful than what I saw at the movie theatre. Example: There’s a speech in the movie where the main character tells his son why he has no responsibility to “like” him as his progeny. Onscreen, the interaction is painful to watch. Onstage, it’s absolutely devastating.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson
Director: Denzel Washington
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some sexually suggestive references). Despite the rating, I would think hard about taking your older children to this picture. Be ready to have a conversation with them afterwards. The film adaptation is worthwhile in a literary way, but it is very intense and tough even for adults to take.
Length: 139 minutes.
“August Wilson.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 21 February 2017. Web. 21 February 2017.