Six years ago, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in the first Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences, which first premiered on the Great White Way in 1987 and earned not just a boatload of Tony and Drama Desk Awards but a Pulitzer Prize. The 2010 version also scored several Tonys, including prizes for both Washington and Davis. The play was a searing look at one deeply flawed family man and his failed dreams, set against the larger context of the ever-shifting African-American experience, and it clearly touched a deep nerve within Washington, who has now endeavored to not just star in a film version but direct it as well.
Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, who lives in a rough-and-tumble part of 1950s Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Davis), his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who has been left with severe brain damage due to a war injury. Troy’s older son from an earlier marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), lives nearby as well. A garbage collector with a harsh upbringing and jail time in his past, Troy works alongside his friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) and they spend their evenings after work drinking, joking and reminiscing, often on the back steps of Troy’s small but cared-for home.
It is this backyard where almost all of Fences takes place, and where we gradually peel back the layers of Troy Maxson. A one-time baseball player of considerable talent, Troy never got his shot at the major leagues — due perhaps to the color barrier that was still in place (but beginning to break down) in pro sports, but also possibly because of his age at the time. Despite his surface jocularity and amiability, Troy is deeply bitter, resentful and even paranoid; he takes out his rage and frustration in ways large and small on his family, especially his two sons. He does everything he can to prevent Cory from playing high school football — ostensibly to save him from the same discrimination he endured, but also possibly because he doesn’t want to see his offspring achieve the success he didn’t.
The role of Troy is a rich one for any actor, and Washington gives it all he’s got as he moves through the many emotional shadings of this often unpleasant yet still empathetic character. His hair gray and his body big yet somehow sagging, Washington fills the screen and the setting with Troy’s overwhelming and often oppressive presence. Davis is his equal and just as captivating as Rose, who puts up with Troy’s daily bluster and somehow manages to keep his tempestuous relationships with his sons in check. In a scene late in the film, where Troy reveals a secret that he has been keeping from Rose, it’s impossible not to see the heartbreak in Davis’ eyes and feel like you’re dying a little yourself.
It is these performances (and strong supporting ones from Henderson, Adepo and Williamson) that are the heart of Fences and essential to sustaining the film. Quite simply, Washington is one hell of an actor but not as adept a director (he has two other features under his belt), and he’s never able to move Fences beyond its obvious origins as a play. Except for a handful of brief moments, the movie takes place entirely in the Maxsons’ yard or the first floor of their house. It feels confined and stagey, and actors move on and off the screen as if there is a curtain just beyond where the camera can see. Even Wilson’s dialogue (the late playwright is credited as the sole screenwriter), which no doubt made for riveting soliloquies on the stage, feels more artificial when the camera just stops to watch one.
What can seem to be an almost slavish faithfulness to the source material — and really, how can you deviate too far from a Pulitzer winner that is considered a modern American classic — ends up working against it in some ways, making Fences the movie an increasingly more tedious experience as it moves slowly through its 133-minute running time. Like the title object — an under-construction barrier in that damn yard that serves as a metaphor for the way we keep ourselves and others trapped within one perceived station in life — the film version of Fences stays so resolutely in place, so beholden to its origins, that even the company of such powerhouse actors as Washington and Viola can’t keep us from wanting to walk outside.
Fences is out in theaters Friday (December 16).