As a Movie, Fences Is One Hell of a Play

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Jim Bono in Fences from Paramount Pictures. Directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson.

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Fences
Directed by Denzel Washington
Opens December 16

Denzel Washington is one of the most popular movie stars in America, and he tends to his image carefully—even his junkiest pictures have some shrewd calculation about what his audience might want to see, and most of the junky ones make money, too. As a director, he chooses more carefully and conscientiously: the smaller-scale dramas of Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, focusing on younger characters, with Washington himself as a mentor figure. In adapting August Wilson’s prize-winning play Fences, Washington places himself center stage—not literally, but in the movie’s version of a stage, most often the backyard of the house where Troy (Washington) lives with his second wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), in 1950s Pittsburgh.

As in the play—Wilson himself wrote the screenplay before his untimely death in 2005—Cory is about to be recruited to play college football. Troy, a former baseball player whose professional aspirations were limited by his race, or his age, or maybe both, sets strict requirements for his son to even play on the football team, let alone accept a potential offer. That strictness is visible too in a scene between Troy and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son from a previous marriage, who visits and asks to borrow ten dollars. Rose, as with her own son, urges Troy to be more flexible.

These plot points are fussed over with torrents of dialogue between Troy, Rose, and their children. Washington and Davis are reprising roles they played on Broadway back in 2010, and the break has seemingly allowed them to stay comfortable in the roles while investing them with a freshness of perspective that comes with age. The musicality of Washington’s voice as he turns interrogative, the repetitions and the needling, make Troy an intimidating force even when he’s all bluster—even, sometimes, when he’s joking around. Washington narrows his eyes nearly to a close and moves with a gait between a limp and a lumber, as if trying to disguise an injury to an unseen coach. Troy’s pragmatism about what life can offer someone in his situation has curdled into disappointment with his life as a trash collector, and he insists that his son get a job, learn a trade, and not expect that the march of progress might take care of him.

Davis isn’t quite as showy—Rose doesn’t have a friend like Bono (Stephen Henderson) to confide in, at least not seen by the movie—but her eventual outbursts are even more powerful. Past the halfway mark, she has a confrontation with Washington that reverberates through the rest of the film; I can’t remember that last time I teared up at a movie character’s pure frustration, rather than sadness or happiness. This is an old-fashioned acting showcase, and not just for the two leads, though they’re both mesmerizing. Henderson, a TV veteran starting to make a go of a character actor career, holds his own in the less fiery scenes, and Hornsby and Adepo go toe-to-toe with Washington in two very different styles—relaxed and seething, respectively.

As a director, Washington seems to have turned his attention to the actors and their words. The movie doesn’t look bad, and the lack of gymnastics intended to “open it up” are appreciated, but a scene of Troy and Bono actually on the job, riding the back of the garbage truck, does throw into sharp relief how relatively stagy most of it is. Like a lot of plays, Fences runs longer than a lot of movies at 140 minutes—and unlike a theatrical production, it has no intermission. Those rhythms that make Troy such a great role for Washington become wearying, probably intentionally; without the electricity of live performance, the material becomes more of a relentless grind. This feels more like a project than a classic movie—it’s a record of Washington, of Davis, and, moreover, of this terrific play about black life at a specific time and place. But at this moment in history—at any moment, really—there’s value in that.

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