Having the good fortune of living in New York City, I think nearly every day about the great Broadway performances I am missing, or have missed recently, in order to feel sorry for myself. In the years that I’ve lived here, only a few have caused lasting regret. I never saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his towering 2012 performance in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” for example. I assumed I had many more chances to see him in other roles.
I also missed the revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” in 2010, and regretted it when the Tonys rolled around and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis claimed trophies for their starring roles. But luckily for me and you, their heralded performances have recently entered movie theaters around the country. These two who fully inhabit two of the most iconic characters in the American theatrical tradition are whom you should go to “Fences” to see. They deliver screen-breaking performances.
The Complicated Patriarch of a Black Family
“Fences” is a tense familial drama set in the lower-middle class Pittsburgh of the 1950s. Washington plays Troy Maxson, the patriarch of a black family and one of the theater’s most gleeful and grandiose storytellers. At the opening of the movie, Troy’s headed home with his friend and co-worker Bono (played by a charming Stephen Henderson) to drink gin and shoot the shit, both things Troy never seems to tire of doing.
As his verbosity fills the small backyard where his character spends most of the movie, we learn a great deal about Troy. He’s 53 years old, a trash collector with enough gumption to ask his supervisor why only colored people pick up the trash and white people drive the trucks (for this perspicacity he receives a promotion). He’s carved out a comfortable, if frugal, life for his family alongside his dedicated wife (played by Davis).
He shows a strong sense of personal responsibility. He refuses to spend money he doesn’t have on a TV, and when his adult son asks for money, he tells him to work for it. He’s a former baseball star in the Negro Leagues, resentful of being left behind in a time before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors. His simmering athleticism, his power thwarted, constrained, and stolen, issues forth the movie’s palpable tension.
He’s an honorable fellow at times, continually bragging about the ways he fulfills his obligations to his family even as he circumvents them. As every new character arrives, Wilson and Washington chip away at this man’s facade, complicating your impressions of him and revealing the jealousy, pride, and insecurities underneath.
Meet Troy Maxson’s Family and Fences
There’s Troy’s brother, Gabe (played with tenderness by Mykelti Williamson), who was injured in World War II and received $3,000 for a metal plate in his head. Troy used the money as the down payment for his family’s home when his brother was committed to a mental hospital.
Then there’s Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s teenage son, a rising football star garnering the interest of college recruiters, until Troy systematically attacks and eliminates his ambitions, acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy that racism in American society won’t let a black man succeed in sports. He dashes his son’s dreams the same way his were dashed.
And then there’s Viola Davis. Oh, Viola Davis. As Rose, Troy’s steadfast wife of 18 years, she provides a counterweight to his bluster, stabilizing their family from within. She’s the real reason you keep watching, as the story slowly places its moral weight on her shoulders. At the climax, when the full weight of Troy’s arrogance and betrayal are revealed, Davis delivers a magnificent monologue of such bone-tingling, nose-running immediacy that people in the theater alongside your reviewer were openly crying out at the screen.
But “Fences” is Washington’s movie, as both the director and lead. In his third outing behind the camera, Washington wisely resists the urge to expand the world of the play from what it needs to be to serve the story. The majority of the action takes place in the family’s small brick home, in their backyard, and on the street outside.
Washington centers the camera on the tight interactions between the characters, understanding that Davis says more with her back turned than many other actresses are able to convey with the full expression of their facial muscles. One indelible image near the end of the movie, of Washington looking straight into the other side of the screen, confronting a personification of Death with a baseball bat, will stick with me for a long time.
A Wrestling Match with the American Dream
There’s always a danger that a stage play will feel confined on screen, and while there are moments in this adaptation that feel a bit too theatrical, too trained, it’s always the language, and not the scenery, that flies from the screen to sweep you away.
This is a credit to Wilson, who elevated the daily vernacular of the working class into poetical, Shakespearean heights perhaps better than any other twentieth-century playwright. Wilson died in 2005 at the age of 60, and received the only screenwriting credit in this film. It’s fitting: it’s his words, understood and inhabited by these remarkable actors, that you need to see, and hear, and wrestle with yourself.
The original “Fences” is a part of a cycle of ten plays by Wilson, each examining a decade in the black American experience. This play, arguably his most famous, is about the struggle to escape the confines of one’s social reality, to maintain your dignity in the face of the titular fences that tighten around you.
Troy, like Miller’s Willy Loman, is locked in a wrestling match with the American dream. It’s a dream that comes with more obstacles for Troy than for the Salesman, and he fights more than disillusionment, which is why this play is also very much about coming of age within the cycle of black manhood damaged by a racist society.
In his backyard again in the middle of the movie, Troy claims that the moment he chose to fight his father off of his 13-year-old girlfriend was the moment he became a man. Manhood, to Troy, meant standing up to his father’s abuse. But later in the play, when his son attempts to do the same, challenging his father’s intimidations, Troy attacks him and throws him out of the house for good.
This is what makes “Fences” so powerful. Washington captures the contradictions that must coexist in his character’s delicate balance. Troy feels the most real when you’re staring his demons in the face. Just after we, the audience, have lost faith in him and are glad to see him brought low, it is up to Rose and Davis to set us straight on how love works, how it heals and covers the flaws in others, and to remind us of our duty to see love through. Theirs is a daunting duet.
Don’t make the same mistake I did in missing their turn on Broadway in 2010. When Davis and Washington collect their Oscars in February, you’ll want to know what the fuss is all about.