Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo
Sitting in the cinema can feel like a front-row seat to an expertly performed revival of a towering American classic. While many critics have debated whether Fences feels too "stagey," the answer is largely irrelevant — this is a theatrical event to be marvelled.
Based on the 1987 play by legendary playwright August Wilson, Washington, Davis and the majority of the cast reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. In addition to appearing onscreen, Washington serves as director, steering his third feature (Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters were his earlier works).
Beginning on a Friday as Troy (Washington) and his friend Bono (Henderson) finish their work week collecting garbage, they retire to Troy's backyard for some banter and gin. Troy is a master storyteller who weaves his shrivelled-up hopes, resentment and regret into every narrative he tells.
The power of Washington's performance is the emotional see-saw audiences feel toward his character — one recollection leads to sympathy, another disgust. His charisma as an actor is a clear asset as Washington draws viewers into his deeply flawed character.
A star baseball player in the Negro league, Troy aged out before Major League Baseball could be integrated (he does not have kind words for the player who managed the feat, Jackie Robinson). His failure to capitalize on his prowess, flames up in his dealings with son Cory (Adepo).
On the verge of a college football scholarship, Troy protests his son focusing attention on the sport, constantly telling him he must be working or learning a trade instead. He has no problem railroading his son's dreams, to him sport is just another area where black men have no path to success in the 1950s.
Overseeing the simmering tension in the household is family matriarch Rose (Davis), whose quiet grace is evident from the first scenes. Her performance is a powerhouse and when Troy makes a stunning revelation halfway through the film, the ensuing scene is dynamite.
Eliciting an audible response from the theatre I was in, Davis sells every moment of the beautifully-written monologue. Her sidelined aspirations, her obliged demureness, her muted passion — it all shines through.
The scene marks a turning point for the film. August Wilson's screenplay contains numerous beautiful and poetic soliloquies. Every action revolves around Troy and Rose's backyard until it all bursts; the metaphorical fences collapse. Rose's monologue is the moment this happens.
Washington's direction can not escape Fences' stage roots. While he tries to change it up and adds some creativity to the shots, the effort is largely fruitless. But who cares? The confinement works and makes the themes resonate all that much more. Watching these actors delve into Wilson's brilliant dialogue is spellbinding.
This is presented as Troy's story: the tale of a man whose dreams have been crushed and who has been permanently paralyzed by bitterness — a Death of a Salesman-esque journey.
But by the end, perhaps Fences becomes Rose's story — one where love triumphs. It doesn't hurt that Davis walks away with the film, outshining her brilliant co-stars in the process.