Fences a Powerful Drama

FENCES (2016)
Directed by Denzel Washington
Paramount, 139 minutes, PG-13

Fences is a powerful drama sparked by two towering performances, those of Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as his wife, Rose. It is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and Mr. Wilson completed the screenplay before his death in 2005. Both the play and film have been hailed for their frank discussions of race, but Fences, if you will, goes well beyond the boundaries of race. It is also about patriarchy, psychological abuse, internalized anger, ageing, fidelity, and fealty. If, like me, you missed it at the theater, rest assured that it works very well on video because it is essentially a filmed play.

Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and centers on Troy Maxson, who is equal parts proud and beaten down. Troy was a baseball star in the Negro Leagues, but was past his prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier. Troy, however, sees racism, not age, as the reason he never got a chance to play, a self-deception fueled by the fact that life hasn’t dealt him the best of hands. He fled from an abusive father when he was just 14; has an older musician son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a relationship that ended long ago; is brother to the  harmless but mentally ill Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson); and works as a garbage man. About all he has going for him is his friendship with coworker Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), and his eighteen-year marriage to Rose, with whom he has another son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Troy’s is a life of over-compensation in which he lies to himself so he doesn’t have to face the fact that he is repeating the sins of his own father and adding a few of his own. His relationship with Bono is essentially that of celebrity and yes-man sycophant; he constantly derides Lyons, whom he sees—with some justification—as a no-account freeloader; brags at the local bar; and treats Cory more like a lowly vassal than a son. Through it all, Rose is the better angel who can free his emotions, buried desires, and sense of humor. She’s also the only one who isn’t afraid of him, calls him out, and has the strength to push him aside when he betrays her. 

Deep inside, Troy fears he is as psychologically scarred as his war-damaged brother, but without Gabriel’s sweet nature. Troy holds imaginary wrestling matches with Death and often takes bat to a bolted-through baseball hanging from a backyard tree, a symbol of both his derailed dreams and what he suspects is a path poorly chosen. Yet Troy rides roughshod over Cory’s dream of playing college football—a compensatory fear that if Cory broke the Maxson pattern of futility his own failures would be magnified. Troy steadfastly refuses to see—as Rose constantly reminds him—that times have changed and that both his patriarchal privilege and the model of raising subservient children with scaled-down dreams are outmoded. Troy uses his successful battle to become Pittsburgh’s first black sanitation truck driver as an aspirational triumph, yet rides Cory as if he were a field-hand slave driver, and fails to see the possibilities within the civil rights dramas occurring beyond his unfinished backyard fence. Is that fence taking (or failing to take) shape to keep Troy’s demons in or out?   

This is powerful stuff, even if it is often a mash of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (Wilson always denied having any secondary inspirations, a claim of which I am dubious.) Washington and Davis are absolutely riveting in their reprisals of roles played on Broadway. Those reprisals raise issues, though. How much should a movie depart from a play in content and in look to be more than a filmed stage performance? I was blown away by the performances, but nothing was added by making Fences into a movie. Aside from a few street scenes, the camerawork is static, the drama is confined to two rooms and a backyard, and play’s acts are faithfully duplicated. This is something of a problem for the final “act,” which telescopes to 1962 as the family gathers for Troy’s funeral. On screen, what we see and hear doesn’t make a lot of sense. The differences in media come into sharp focus here. Live theater builds audience emotions in ways that encourage the filling in of narrative blanks, but the extra distancing of the screen generally requires more explanation. As great as the performances are—and they are stupendous—should reprised stage roles filmed qualify for film acting awards? I don’t think so, but I do think you should see Fences if you haven’t already. You will witness actors at the height of their craft and ponder issues deep and dark. And the next time you need to explain the difference between acting and celebrity, or art versus mere entertainment, you’ll have ammunition.

Rob Weir           

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