Denzel Washington could just as easily have brought his adaptation of August Wilson’s 1980s play Fences to the small screen as much as the big one. The scale of the drama is not just small and intimate, but confined, like the horizon of the ex-Negro League baseball immortal now reduced to working as a trash collector. A courthouse, a church, a cemetery, a few private homes are all we see.
In rarely wandering beyond the home and backyard of Troy Maxson, the camera makes the viewer feel as constricted as he has been all his life, and certainly “standing in the same place for eighteen years,” as he tells his dutiful wife Rose in a moment of anguish. Viewers can be forgiven for sharing his inability to see that the world is opening up, to such an extent that son Cory has a chance to achieve the full measure of athletic recognition that was wrongly denied him.
I had been itching to see this movie for weeks, for a variety of reasons:
*I’ve visited its setting, Pittsburgh, on several occasions, and wanted to see how its streets—even if decorated to appear as if it were the 1950s—looked;
*As a baseball fan, I’ve long been fascinated and saddened by Negro League players like Maxson, past their prime because the color line was broken;
*It’s got Denzel, dummy!
Washington offers no special effects, no motion picture razzle-dazzle, just a seminar in fine acting provided by himself and his fellow cast members, along with absolute fidelity to the screenplay that Wilson, before his death, had fashioned from his Broadway hit.
In the most personal, non-stereotypical manner, Wilson takes in far more than simply the racism that blighted the economic prospects of African-Americans for the first half of the last century. He also depicts its inevitable impact on the family lives of its victims, and the means of escape—crime, substance abuse, infidelity—they sought only to find that, all too frequently, their despair had only deepened.
“You got more stories than the Devil’s got sinners,” his friend Jim Bono (Henderson) tells Troy. But Wilson’s screenplay is filled not just with the humor but also the poetry of common speech, delivered by the cast (largely carried over from the 2010 Broadway revival) in natural tones.
First among equals, of course, is Washington. If there’s even a speck of star vanity in his portrayal, I couldn’t detect it. He has allowed gray to freely sprinkle his hair, and while not pudgy he clearly gained weight, as one would expect of a former athlete in his 50s, without the need any more to maintain his physique but with plenty of time to spend on a Friday night with friends at the bar.
Viola Davis, winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, brings vibrancy and dignity to the role of Rose. Her comfort level with Washington, her co-star in the Broadway revival several years ago, is apparent, particularly in the early scenes, when her joy and physical attraction to Troy is almost palpable. That makes it all the more tragic when, after 18 years of marriage, he shares a secret that crushes both their spirits.
And, in a role that helped thrust a young Courtney B. Vance into the spotlight in the original Broadway show, Jovan Adepo as Cory more than holds his own in emotionally and physically draining scenes with Washington, allowing us to see how successive generations are left to cope in painful confusion with the painful legacy of racism’s victims.