Although the central themes hold true in the transition from stage to screen, what made for an great play only results in a good movie. For those that don’t know, the film was adapted from the 1983 August Wilson play of the same name. In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in the Broadway revival of the play, which set the table for the eventual film adaptation.
Washington reprised his role as Troy Maxson and helmed the project as director (his first since The Great Debaters in 2007). Denzel has become synonymous with great acting performances and this film is no different. He displayed all the complexity and internal torment inherent in the character, a former Negro League baseball star still coming to terms with life as a garbage man, husband and father after a stint in prison. Washington does a masterful job capturing the pain and burden of responsibility imposed on Maxson during the late 1950s. The Oscar nod for Best Actor is certainly warranted, but he’ll likely finish as runner up. Pulling double duty as director, he was already comfortable with the characters and the story. His intimate knowledge of the characters helped to place the focus on Troy and his wife Rose. As they navigate the often choppy waters of duty and responsibility, the tertiary characters serve to highlight specific challenges in their lives.
Viola Davis had a very busy year, but you’d be hard pressed to ever catch her phoning in a performance. Her character Rose is the heart of the story, as compassionate as her husband is coarse. Tangled and tethered to her husband, she is the glue holding the family together The performance was gracefully powerful while maintaining a tangible vulnerability, likely giving her a very good chance to take home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Mykelti Williams delivers a strong performance as Troy’s brother Gabriel who was disabled during the war. Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo play Troy’s sons from different mothers, both trying to find their own ways in the world while searching for connection with their father. Stephen Henderson rounds out the main cast playing Jim Bono, Troy’s friend, co-worker and moral compass. The cast is definitely the strength of this film and they play of one another naturally.
The title Fences is both literal and figurative throughout the course of the story. It is used early on as both a means to unite and divide Troy from his family. The fence is gradually built throughout the course of the film, serving as a plot device for all of the characters in their own way. This film has it’s strengths and weaknesses, but strikes me as a story best reserved for the stage. A Best Picture nomination is well deserved but it’s less complete than the other films nominated for the same category.
Recommendation: See it for the acting performances. Although the story is linear, you may find yourself asking: what’s the point? It’s not so much about the endgame as the journey. It’s a snapshot of African American life during the 1950s. Rich with historical context, the audience can pull many lessons about life from this family.