I shouldn’t have to explain why Fences, the August Wilson play set in the 1950s and now adapted for the screen, is important. If you’ve stepped anywhere near the theater — and I mean the playhouse here — you’ve read, seen, or heard about it. Wilson, who didn’t study theater in school, tuned his ear by listening to the cadence and diction of the people in his working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where most of his plays are set. When Fences premiered in 1983, the language was a welcome breath of smoggy, industrial air in the pristine, over-enunciated theater, and ever since it’s remained one of the most frequently produced scripts in America.
Fences puts black lives in the center of their own stories. But for as much as we theater nerds know and love the play, the fact remains that most African Americans have not felt invited to the theater to see it. This screen adaptation, a wide release starring and directed by Denzel Washington, one of this country's last true movie stars, is vital because it has the potential to reach marginalized communities. But it also stands as an aching, lyrical, performance-driven masterpiece in its own right, a film so intense and engrossing that movie theaters really should screen it with an intermission.
Washington plays Troy, a 50-something garbage collector who’s jovial and entertaining as he holds court on the job and after work with his best friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson). Walking home, then hanging around in his backyard, Troy and Bono share a bottle of booze back and forth right up until it’s done. Troy’s good-natured cynicism on topics like his failed baseball career (pre–Jackie Robinson) can turn on a dime to thinly veiled anger. In these moments, Washington’s signature laugh — the one that launches straight from his belly and winds up a joyous coughing fit — becomes almost weaponized. Meanwhile, Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), dodge Troy's wrath, keeping him in check with practiced patience and polite jabs. As Troy spins tall-tale yarns about encounters with devils and the Grim Reaper, Rose’s pointed quips set him straight: “Anything he can’t understand he call it the devil,” she says.
The boisterous tone of quick-witted chatter darkens as Troy’s eldest son, the estranged Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a musician, comes by for a small loan. Further irritating Troy’s poorly hidden emotional wounds: the arrival of his own older brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose brain injury from the war has rendered him infantile, walking the streets, chasing imaginary demons away. (It’s Gabriel’s payout from the government that allowed Troy to buy his house.) Throughout the rambling conversations, the edges of these characters' fragile happiness curl up — beneath it all, always, is a painful history of being black in America.
Inside the house, couch covers squeak under the characters’ butts as they shoot the shit — the protective plastic a potential nod to how badly Rose wants to preserve everything she has, even if it’s cheap. Adorning every wall in every room, pictures of a white Jesus watch over black lives. Outside, a garden of sturdy vegetables grows among the cement of the backyard, where Rose wants Troy to build a fence. This takes him years, and the job becomes a running thread that shows how time has passed.
In the interim, he slowly destroys everything good in his life by having an affair with a woman who then becomes pregnant. He’s trapped in a spiraling replay of his own father’s demise, a story he tells to the others as a cautionary tale of how quickly and easily it can all go wrong for a black man. This doesn’t excuse his failings, but it does reveal the complex truth that getting screwed over by the system, again and again, turned Troy from a hopeful boy to a hardened, pitiless man.
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Washington may take an actors-first approach to his direction, but he’s not easy on his own character. I’ve seen this play on the stage a few times, and there’s always a kind of magic at the end — no matter how terrible Troy gets, audiences can’t help but still feel love for him and sympathy for his pain. Washington’s portrayal is harsher than many stage Troys. Here, as the years pass, Troy says dumber and more hurtful things to Rose until she finally breaks and lashes out, tears and snot flowing freely down her face — Davis at that moment becomes the people’s champion.
And because, as the film nears its end, Washington chooses to focus his camera so attentively on Rose, she slowly becomes the central figure in this Fences, not Troy. There’s no bitter laughter that will endear us to him this time, just a raging fire burning in Rose, siphoning all the oxygen for her flame.
In some ways, Fences parallels Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13TH, which draws a kind of road map for how African Americans were disenfranchised and incarcerated after the abolition of slavery, with repercussions spanning generations — and the hurt cycle keeps spinning. Wilson’s tale is an enduring story without easy answers or false triumphs, one that gets more complicated as it ages; all the questions about today’s America still have their echoes in Fences.
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Russell Hornsby. Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by August Wilson. Rated PG-13. 139 minutes. Opens wide Sunday, December 25.