August Wilson was one of our greatest playwrights, a titan of the American theater. He was careful about his legacy, and didn’t allow his plays to be made into feature films unless he had approval of the director. He wrote a screenplay for one of his two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences, stipulating that the director needed to be African American. Only now, eleven years after his death, has it finally made it to the big screen, directed by Denzel Washington.
Fences takes place in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and Washington stars as Troy Maxson, an ex-Negro Leagues baseball player, now working as a garbage man. Troy is a passionate and voluble man, with a dominating presence wherever he goes, still nursing resentment about being turned down for the big leagues because of his age, when major league baseball became integrated. His wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, is a match for him, strong and assertive. They have a son Cory, whose desire to go to college on a football scholarship puts him on a collision course with his father, whose bitterness over his own career in sports makes him want to steer his son away from that path. Troy also has a son by a previous marriage named Lyons—now in his thirties, he barely gets by working as a musician, and his occasional requests for money from Troy inspires some scorn and ridicule from the old man. Rounding out the characters are Jim Bono, an old friend and co-worker who admires Troy and acts as his conscience at times, and Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabriel, whose back story involves some shame.
To go into greater detail about the conflicts that animate this masterpiece would be to spoil the enjoyment. I can only say that Troy’s outsize ego, his clear virtues and strengths, along with the weaknesses he hides, overshadow the feelings of others to the point where he forces them, inevitably, to rebel. He is that rare modern character who can safely be compared to the hero of a Greek tragedy.
This is essentially a filmed play, with Washington opening up the action a little bit here and there, but the story still mainly confined to the Maxon house and backyard. Within those limits, the direction is fluid and engaging, keeping the audience’s interest at a high pitch. And what a play this is. Wilson, like all great dramatists, used language to solidify his characters in our minds. You may know colorful people who fill the space with their words, bringing all attention to themselves and their views, but with Troy Maxson, Wilson heightened and intensified the man until he became an unforgettable presence. Denzel Washington fits into the character like a hand into a glove. He laughs, argues, rages, and mourns to the very top of his range—I think this is the greatest performance of his film career. And Viola Davis is everything you could ask for in the second lead. Her big scenes with Washington are honest, vulnerable, and heart-wrenching. They did the play together on Broadway before embarking on this film version, and you can tell that they have honed their skills to a fine point here, without losing any freshness or urgency. Stephen Henderson shines as Troy’s best friend Jim, and Mykelti Williamson is particularly stirring in the difficult part of the mad innocent, Gabriel.
The play takes its title, Fences, from a fence around the house Troy is in the process of building, and metaphorically from the fences its characters build around themselves. Washington has done well by this great work, and I hope that it inspires more appreciation for the plays of August Wilson.