What playwright August Wilson presents in Fences is a portrait of the African-American experience. This is an ensemble piece as seen through the eyes of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). The setting is 1957 in the backyard of an urban home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy toils as a waste collector along with his friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy once played in the professional Negro Leagues many years ago but never graduated to playing baseball in the Majors. This is still a bone of contention with him. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) also lives in the same neighborhood. He is mentally impaired from a head injury he received in WWII. Troy’s adult son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship occasionally drops by.
August Wilson’s Fences is indeed a seminal work. The screenplay here is solely credited to the author who passed on in 2005. Fences originally began as a staged reading in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. By 1987, the theater piece was received with thunderous acclaim. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award. August Wilson’s words need no correction. The script is already focused. Wilson takes a much broader, almost unwieldy subject, and then examines it in a more manageable arena. There really isn’t much plot. Just a series of compelling vignettes. Ah but those sketches are gold.
If there is a failing, it’s that this is not very cinematic. The drama benefits from the immediacy of a live performance. The entire production takes place either in his home or out in the backyard. Star Denzel Washington, who also directs, makes no attempt to disguise the play from its stage-bound origins. Granted that would have required some creative changes. The source material has an extremely limited setting. Sometimes that can work to an advantage but here it’s a liability. The inherent separation of a movie keeps the audience’s engagement a bit more remote. It’s still a fascinating watch, but it loses something in its translation from stage to screen.
What really elevates Fences is the acting. This is a richly written ensemble pieces that heavily relies on powerful performances. Denzel and Viola are reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. [Incidentally, the original 1987 cast featured James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in those parts.] Needless to say, Washington and Davis know their characters inside and out. Denzel is extremely good and Viola is extraordinary. A woman so fully formed that I was even more drawn to trying to understand this individual. She fascinated me. It may be Troy’s story in that every part exists to reflect his personality. However, I found myself sympathizing with her plight a lot more than her husband’s. She seizes attention whenever she is on screen. The studio may have marketed her achievement as a supporting role to secure an Oscar nomination (and possible win), but she is no doubt equally important in this context. It’s her authentic portrayal, as well as the subdued work of Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Jim, that I will remember long after having seen the film.