August Wilson’s Fences has landed a whole heap of awards on Broadway; James Earl Jones and Mary Alice won best actor and actress trophies in its original run, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won the same trophies again during its revival. It is a thorough and at times all-too-real exploration of the complexities of father/son and husband/wife relationships, presenting as its central character an infinitely charismatic and immeasurably flawed shell of a man in Troy Maxson, whose failings, frailties, and prejudices drive forward the narrative. Maxson is the frustration of the everyman, particularly the African-American man in the fifties who had the deck impossibly stacked against him.
Troy looms larger-than-life, so wracked with numerous layers of guilt that cast a shadow over everyone else in the play and indeed his life. Troy’s central flaw is an inability to see himself at fault and thus he is continually at odds with the other characters and with life. Early in the story when talking to his son Cory he impresses on him that being liked is not what is important, but rather whether or not they are doing right by him. Troy’s is a character who feels that life has done him wrong in nearly every way, even insofar that he nearly died when he was younger but was able to fight off the grim reaper. As he feels his grip slipping on the few things left in his life that he holds dear, he seeks to erect the titular fence both in his mind around his beliefs and in his yard to keep the grim reaper away.
This is all fantastically realized under Denzel Washington’s brilliant direction, which reunites him with Viola Davis in a screenplay adaptation written by Wilson himself before he died in 2005. This film has been widely-celebrated for its accuracy to the source material as well as for its incredible performances, but it needs to be noted how cinematic Washington makes it. The film’s primary setting in its lengthy runtime is the back yard of the Maxson home and it absolutely feels like a play in its staging, but this character’s circumstances almost demand that. This character is so stubborn and bitter at life that he rarely even leaves his home save to go to work, so why shouldn’t its primary action all take place at his home? That notwithstanding, Washington utilizes this tiny space to amazing effect, and as the film progresses he shoots it in a way to make it feel more closed-in and claustrophobic, as if the reaper’s hand itself were tightening around Troy’s world and threatening to snuff it out. Washington uses the space between and behind the building as its own fence, and from the get-go it sets out to make the audience feel as if the characters are simply trapped.
The brilliance of the acting from this amazing cast is made so visually engaging by the use of close-ups at pivotal moments, as Washington moves his camera into them, pushing into their pain and vulnerabilities and allowing his audience to invest themselves deeply into these characters’ lives, and to see a part of ourselves within them. While little of Wilson’s amazing text has been altered to fit the screen, the way Washington moves the camera and the performances from this breathtaking ensemble allow a film audience to feel and engage with them. Without saying a single word, the guilt Troy feels over his brother’s disability is palpable and heart-wrenching. Viola Davis gives a masterclass unto herself as Troy’s steadfast wife Rose, a shining beam of sunlight that colors Troy’s bleak, black-and-white world and truly makes him feel alive. As their relationship is challenged through the runtime of the film the life and the energy within Troy seem to abandon him in equal measure. Troy’s larger-than-life presence is accentuated by repeated camera shots from below, while other characters are framed in shots to feel like they’re smaller. Washington knows exactly how to place and use the camera effectively to invest his audience in the raw emotionality of the story.
As great as he does behind the camera in Fences, however, it is Washington’s work before it that continues to show why he is among the greatest living actors of this or any generation. He exudes raw emotion and he is unrecognizable as the surly, overbearing Troy, who in equal measure seems to want to elevate everyone around him beyond his worries and to drag them down into the depths of hell with him. His presence of character is so astoundingly large that Troy’s mood dictates the entire mood of any scene and transforms within it along with him. Whether right or not, justified or not, his anger is our anger, his joy our joy, his life is our life. Troy’s entire character throughout the film is intent on selling everyone- be it the characters that come through his life and the audience themselves- on this idea that life hasn’t treated him fairly and that everyone’s been unfair to him while he’s been nothing but fair to them. Washington plays all of this magnificently and is simply mesmerizing. It’s easy to point out that his own actions have led him to this place in life, but it wouldn’t matter; Troy’d simply find a way to overpower you and by the end believe that it was the other way around. This is the raw, true power of Wilson’s words, combined with the mastery of Washington’s direction and performance.
Troy’s character is anchored by the performance of the jaw-droppingly great Viola Davis, whose performance somehow manages to capture happiness, a stoic acceptance, withering pain and full-on breakdown. She is truly Troy’s foil and really the one reason we find him to be a redeemable character at all. She is his champion despite all of his numerous faults, but at this point in their marriage she has learned to be dismissive of him and just let his gigantic ego shine as brightly as it may, doing just enough to try to keep him grounded. Davis’ Rose is in stark contrast to Troy’s bluster; she is reserved, quiet, light-hearted and a breath of fresh air every time she steps on the screen. Yet, of the two characters, she is immeasurably stronger than Troy, knowing that the way her life has turned out is her responsibility and fault and she owns it completely. When she is challenged by Troy a fire erupts within her and these are among the few moments in the story that she is able to actually stop his ceaseless bloviating. Few actresses working could have imbued all of this depth into Rose but Davis, as she has done time and again, disappears into the role and is utterly mind-blowing. Her expressive emotionality is heartbreaking and beautiful all in one stroke.
The remaining cast is excellent as well, offering Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel and Jovan Adepo as Cory as the best standouts. Stephen Henderson’s Bono is also wonderful as the only real friend Troy has, who seems at least entertained by Troy’s antics while simultaneously dismissing him.
Fences is quite simply a modern American masterpiece of theater, with Wilson following in the footsteps of titans like Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller before him, writing characters whose tragedy is Simply that they are so real. As a member of the audience it is heartbreaking to watch what happens, wishing there was some way to change it, but knowing there’s not. It is a snapshot of the dark and bleak tragedy of one American family that never relents in its pursuit of happiness, even though it never really seems within reach. The film version could probably have been a little bit shorter and less stage-y, but Washington’s vision here was clearly to preserve the elements of this story and the characters that Wilson created, and in so doing created a film that showcases some of the most powerful acting you’ll ever see in a cinema. Nine stars out of Ten.