Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.16
Big-screen adaptations of famous plays can be problematic; it’s often difficult to “open up” the drama, in order to avoid a claustrophobic sense that the result is simply a filmed stage production.
As a director, Denzel Washington and production designer David Gropman haven’t done much to expand this play’s original stage tableau; most of the action still takes place in the back yard of the tiny home that Troy Maxson shares with his wife Rose, although the film also brings us inside, where we see how hard she works to keep things clean and tidy. Occasional establishing shots give a sense of mid-1950s Pittsburgh, and we spend a bit of time with Troy and best friend Bono, making their rounds as garbage collectors.
But it really wasn’t necessary to enhance any of these settings, because the film’s secret weapon is the same element that made the play a Tony Award-winning hit during its initial 1987-88 Broadway run, and subsequently led to a Pulitzer Prize: playwright August Wilson’s mesmerizing dialogue. Many of the lines — particularly those spoken by Troy — have a lyrical, attention-grabbing cadence that transfixes us just as much as the drama itself.
Fences was revived for a 13-week Broadway run in the spring of 2010, once again earning multiple Tony Awards, including a pair for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They’ve reprised their roles for this film adaptation, and remained utterly faithful to Wilson’s original script: No “adaptor” has messed with the dialogue.
The result is an enormously powerful showcase for Wilson, Washington and Davis.
The two stars have numerous impressive scenes, and it’s difficult to cite one over the others. But, days later, I remain drawn to a moment when Troy shares an incident from his childhood: an event that precipitated his running away from home, at age 14, to escape from a dangerous father who might have killed him. In a role that’s given to deliciously baroque, self-indulgent speeches and explosions of short-tempered anger, Washington’s handling of this scene resonates for its contrast.
He relates the anecdote quietly, its impact still affecting Troy deeply, so many years later. As an audience, we dare not even breathe: just as transfixed as the characters listening to Troy speak. I’ve not seen a moment to match this degree of softly narrated trauma since Billy Bob Thornton’s first soliloquy, in 1996’s Sling Blade.
Davis’ standout moment — the scene that will absolutely, positively bring her an Academy Award — comes during a far more dreadful encounter, when an initially stunned Rose responds to an act of betrayal that she never, ever saw coming. Davis is so wholly distraught — despair literally leaking from her eyes, nose and mouth — that we can’t help fearing for her health. (Could she really have dug that deeply into her soul, every night on Broadway, for 13 weeks? The mind doth boggle.)
The story, taking place on several isolated days during the course of several months, begins after Troy and Bono (Stephen Henderson) complete a typical work week, and share a bottle of gin in the former’s back yard. Troy dutifully hands his pay packet to Rose, an act that corresponds — almost to the second — with the arrival of Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s elder son by a previous marriage.
Lyons, a struggling musician too artistically focused to sully his hands with honest labor, has come to borrow $10. This apparently frequent request triggers an exasperated speech from Troy — the heavenward gazes from Rose, Bono and Lyons indicating that they’ve heard it all many, many times before — about hard work, the folly of expecting something for nothing, and various other grievances.
Troy, we learn fairly quickly, harbors longtime resentments over past injustices prompted by the pre-Civil Rights color barrier. He fancies himself a champion baseball player, insisting that Jackie Robinson isn’t such a much, and laments the casual racism that denied him a major league career. Troy also loves to boast about his previous battles with Death and the Devil, larding such anecdotes — as Rose laughingly points out — with ever more flamboyant details, during each re-telling.
(Mortal men haughtily challenging celestial deities is a running theme in many of Wilson’s plays.)
The irony, of course, is that — despite Troy’s constant grousing — his life is good, if humble. He has a home and a loving wife; they’re raising a dutiful teenage son. Bono is a staunch friend, and — complaints about the color barrier notwithstanding — he successfully earns a promotion to become a driver, rather than a menial barrel lifter.
But like too many men full of themselves, more comfortable ranting about perceived injustices than embracing life’s joys, Troy can’t get out of his own way. He’s a tragic figure of his own creation, forever burdened by memories of an appalling upbringing and young adulthood. At the age of 53, he has become a man who doesn’t deserve the blessings that surround him.
Much of Fences feels like black America’s response to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in terms of the increasingly fractured family dynamic, and notably the conflict between father and sons. But Troy also is a figure of Shakespearean tragedy akin to King Lear: an absurdly, uncomfortably self-centered tyrant who repeatedly lashes out and, ultimately, ruins everything that he cherishes.
The subtlety of Washington’s densely layered performance is revealed by the degree to which we continue to pity Troy — perhaps even sympathize with him — despite his increasingly unforgivable acts. The desperation in Washington’s gaze, each time Troy is unable to explain himself properly, is heartbreaking. He’s locked into a pattern, convinced that every perceived slight is the work of Death or the Devil.
To which end, the play also revolves around his longstanding promise to enclose their back yard with a fresh wooden fence: a chore that proceeds in maddening fits and starts. We can imagine that Troy wants to metaphorically fence out his demons, but it’s just as likely that Rose wants him to fence in everything that she finds important ... including, most particularly, her husband.
Equally heartbreaking is Mykelti Williamson’s performance as Troy’s brother, Gabe, left mentally confused by a savage head injury during his war service. As befits his archangelic namesake, Gabe forever carries a battered trumpet, often shouting that Satan’s hell hounds are nipping at his heels. Williamson’s blank expressions are a distressing blend of innocence and utter confusion, Gabe often interrupting himself with biblical non-sequiturs.
At first blush, Troy’s approach to his brother seems tender and patient: a degree of sensitivity he doesn’t waste on anybody else. Alas, as with so many other relationship dynamics in this story, all is not as it seems. Among Troy’s many other failings, he carries guilty secrets.
Jovan Adepo is a cauldron of repressed emotions as Troy and Rose’s son Cory, a teenager who has spent his entire life worshiping his authoritarian and often harsh father, and has just begun to perceive that Dad probably doesn’t deserve the pedestal onto which he has been placed. The many father/son encounters make us wince, as we watch childhood reverence leak from Adepo’s hardening eyes, to be replaced by wary suspicion and mounting hostility.
The explosive catalyst is Cory’s success on the high school football team, which has attracted the attention of college coaches. Troy, convinced that times haven’t changed, and that Cory is destined for a career of benched frustration while white players take the field, orders his son to quit the team. Will this be the final unjust demand that prompts rebellion?
Hornsby, recognized from TV’s Grimm, oozes laid-back charm as Lyons: every inch a silver-tongued smoothie with the patter of a born hustler.
Henderson’s performance is less showy, but in many ways more deeply felt. Bono is cheerful and serene, the sort of staunch friend who enjoys simply being in a buddy’s presence. Henderson, who also played this role in the 2010 Broadway revival, makes it clear that Bono has seen and learned more, in his longer lifetime, but never finds it necessary to challenge Troy’s boastful exaggerations or bald conceit.
Bono also makes it clear, during a calm but mildly stern admonition, that he won’t hang around and watch, should Troy’s behavior morph from gin-fueled bluster to genuine self-destruction.
Watching all this unfold is akin to the proverbial slow-motion train wreck: We can’t avert our gaze, even as the carnage escalates. Troy eventually crosses so many lines, that even he’s no longer sure of his own footing. Alas — Washington’s expression both hardening and becoming more haunted — pride prevents any degree of retreat.
This film’s many assets notwithstanding, there’s no question that the pacing is leisurely, the 138-minute length an occasional stretch. As a director, Washington isn’t in a hurry, obviously wanting us to savor every syllable of Wilson’s carefully constructed dialogue. The proximity to live performances likely rendered pacing moot in the stage production, but that attitude is a bit self-indulgent in this film adaptation. Some viewers may chafe.
But if that’s a flaw — and many will insist otherwise — it remains the only nit worth picking, and it’s inconsequential. Fences is an incredibly powerful film, from its opening scene to every throat-clutching minute of its short epilog. And be sure to watch what happens with a background gate, during the final character tableau: an incident of artistic serendipity that Washington (in the press notes) swears was unplanned, and clearly reflects Wilson’s gesture from beyond the grave.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised.