Written by: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo
Despite never quite fully understanding every circumstance, parents typically make decisions they believe to be for the betterment of their children even if it turns out to be misguided in the end. It all comes from a place of love and hoping the child does not fall into the same mistakes they did in their lifetime. This central idea drives much of the conflict occurring within Fences, as it continually drives deeper into the relationship dynamic on display between a family.
In 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works his days as a garbage man hoping to become a driver in order to avoid the pains of physical labor. Back at home, he has his lovely wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He works all week to get to Friday in order to get his paycheck but runs into complications when Cory decides to dedicate more time to football than he’s comfortable with.
Taken nearly word-for-word from the August Wilson play of the same name, Fences takes a direct approach in adapting this story to the big screen led by two giants of acting in Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington also steps behind the camera with this feature to direct and with it shows reverence for the art of acting in the way he puts together this feature. A scintillating showcase for this pair and they carry the success of this story on their shoulders.
With limited sets, this film falls into the category of feeling stagey, which does not inherently make it inferior but the elements of this coming from a play becomes quite obvious when long stretching moments remain in the same scene. However, it does not take away from the viewing experience because the incredible dialogue brought forth by August Wilson along with the terrific acting on display left me hanging on every word as a level of tension continued to build within the household. Taking place on several Fridays throughout some time becomes integral to the story seeing as how much money plays into the character interactions.
Troy views work as a means to provide for his family and for a bit of enjoyment as well to buy himself a bottle of his favorite alcoholic drink. The money he earns from his job comes with plenty of pride, which makes him protective of it and the prospects it has for his son. It’s what makes the interactions with his oldest son, not with Rose, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) very informative. He comes around one Friday asking for $10 he promises to pay back and the entire exchange carries a level of discomfort because what could that amount possibly mean to a working man like Troy. Not until he reveals how much he makes in a week that it becomes evident how much $10 meant in the 1950s. Evidently, it does not fully become about dollar amount but how he disapproves of Lyons’s lifestyle choices.
This ultimately drives a wedge between him and his sons as it becomes his way or the highway. Throughout much of the film, Troy mentions how he played baseball incredibly well but due to racism, he could never play in the major leagues. This negative experience in his youth has callused him to the point where he sees the pursuit of anything remotely unstable as something not worth the risk of the pain he felt. He tries to instill this with his two sons where Lyons hopes to make it as a musician and Cory wants to play college football. Instead of trying to support his two sons in their own pursuits just like he once did, he feels it’s his duty to save them from the potential pain he faced when younger. It leads to fiery discussions about how much time has changed from when Troy was young and how the ideals for Black like altered with each passing decade. It becomes difficult to fully disagree with Troy’s ideals as it comes from the protective side of being a father but he goes about it the wrong way.
Denzel Washington absolutely nails every piece of dialogue he gets to chew on with this role and utilizes his neverending charisma to make even Troy’s least likable moments palatable. He pairs superbly with Viola Davis, who portrays Rose in a role hinging on patience and love for the men around her until she reaches her breaking point. The nurturing level of care she manifests with this role comes from a place where she expects the best of their situation no matter the case. If Troy looks at the world with plenty of cynicism, Rose maintains a revelatory view where she always seeks for the potential of each situation. She puts up with all of Troy’s nonsense because she has a level of love for him that cannot be quantified. Davis rightfully won her Academy Award for this role as she delivers an acting display for the ages.
Limited in production scope but textually rich, Fences gives these tremendous actors something to chew on and they certainly run with it. Not necessarily a directorial achievement by Denzel but certainly some of his finest acting of that particular decade. Each scene has moments where I forgot I was watching a movie and thought I stepped into someone’s household as they dealt with generational pain and anger in a damaging but cathartic manner.