Your opinion of Denzel Washington’s Fences may very well depend on your feelings about what movies are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. Are they supposed to simply tell a story, period amen, even if that means nothing more than setting up a camera in a room to document a conversation (which was basically the purpose served by the very first moving pictures in the late 1890s)? Is it a requirement that they utilize their format to bring interesting imagery to the screen in addition to the words and conversations?
If you didn’t know already — and you couldn’t tell from my leading questions in the above paragraph — Fences began life as an August Wilson stage play, a part of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, and that shows in Washington’s film adaptation. By my count, just three short scenes take place away from the family home or yard (and when I say “short scenes”, I mean three minutes or shorter, in a movie where other scenes go on for 20+ minutes). And yet, despite my constant insistence that story and visuals are inextricable parts of a visual medium, this lack of cinematic oomph doesn’t actually bother me when it comes to Fences. The claustrophobia induced by the tight setting is purposeful in the thought-provoking story; the capital-A Acting is top-to-bottom some of the best of the year; and the pace and rhythm of the 1950s African-American dialogue sings (which pleases me as a devoted Sorkinite).
In 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) works as a trash collector, bringing his weekly paycheck home to his devoted wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and son, Corey (Jovan Adepo). He drinks once a week with his best friend and coworker, reluctantly loans money to his grown son from another marriage, and occasionally must corral his wandering, mentally-disabled brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson, a.k.a. Bubba from Forrest Gump). A proud but bitter man, Troy laments his meager pay and general lack of opportunities he’s had in his life, notably that he never got a shot at the Major Leagues despite being a standout in the Negro Leagues as a younger man. For this reason, he balks at his son’s college football recruitment and NFL dreams.
If anything, the play/movie (and, I assume, a lot of Wilson’s other work) highlights how unfair life can be. Troy believes — accurately, I imagine — that he was and is held back by racial inequality. His brother sustained a head injury fighting in World War II — the source of his disability — and was given a handshake and $3000 for his troubles (which he didn’t even get to keep, as Troy used it to buy his house). Rose devotes her life to being the best wife she can be to Troy, and he repays her in compoundingly shitty ways that I won’t reveal (because the trailers don’t). Corey gets good grades, works an after school job, and excels on the football field, and even that’s not enough for Troy (for several complex reasons).
Troy carries the bitterness from his own life into his parenting. He is harsh (or unfair, depending on your point of view) with his son because he knows the world will be too. Rose sees that inevitability as all the more reason to show her son love and support. While small Civil Rights progress was happening by the late 50s — and Corey has slightly fewer barriers than Troy had — Troy either doesn’t see the progress or actively ignores it, because acknowledging it would only make the past injustice he had suffered harder to swallow.
As little more than a filmed version of the 2010 Broadway revival (in which both Washington and Davis starred and for which both won Tony’s), the performances shine above all else. You can already begin etching Viola Davis’ name onto the Best Supporting Actress statue (which would put her three-quarters’ of the way towards an EGOT) and expect Denzel Washington to battle Casey Affleck for what would be his third Oscar.
One of August Wilson’s stated goals for his plays was to offer white Americans a look at black Americans in a way that they weren’t used to seeing. In the case of Fences, he wanted to show the depth and complexity, the tragedy and the beauty, the richness of the life of a simple black garbageman, “a person (white Americans) don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day.”
Whatever you ultimately think of Troy Maxson when the credits finally roll in Fences, his story is undoubtedly worth the look.