Denzel Washington is one of the most compelling and powerful actors cinema has, and Viola Davis is quite possibly the only actress who can match his raw power. Fences gives these two towering performers a perfect showcase for their talents as they reprise the roles they played to Tony-winning effect in the late August Wilson’s play of the same name, which Washington himself adapts for the big screen.
The film focuses on the life of Troy Maxson (Washington), a refuse collector in 1950s Pittsburgh. As with the play, the bulk of the film is set in and around Troy’s house and back yard, where he holds court for his friends and family. Troy is a fascinating character: he’s the biggest, loudest person in any room and dominates any social situation he’s in but beneath his gregarious demeanour, he’s also a frustrated and deeply resentful man.
Much of that frustration stems from a baseball career that didn’t take off the way it should have. Though he broke records in the Negro League, Troy was never given a fair shot in the Major Leagues because of his race, though wife Rose (Davis) claims his advanced years were more of a factor. Since then, he has worked hard at his job and provided for his family – along with Rose, there’s teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an adult son from a previous marriage. Troy takes pride in providing for his family and sees that duty as the most important thing a man can do, though he never misses an opportunity to lord that sacrifice over his family.
The criticism levelled at stage adaptations is often that they just feel like a filmed play and Fences does later to avoid that. Whether it should or not is up for debate but regardless, Washington does open out the action a little bit – shooting around local streets and bars – but the film is very much dialogue driven. With dialogue as rich as Wilson’s and actors as strong as Washington and Davis, that definitely isn’t a problem. Washington in particular has long monologues that start off as funny anecdotes before shifting into serious ruminations on the hardships he’s faced and all the way back again. Very few actors can command the screen the way Washington does and he is magnetic here, delivering one of his very best performances.
Right up there with him is Davis, who is largely in the background for the first half of the film, only weighing in to playfully jibe Troy about his exaggerated stories or steer him in the right direction when it comes to his kids. But as the film progresses and their seemingly happy marriage starts to face real difficulties, she comes to the fore in a big way. Though Davis’ role is more quiet and watchful than Washington’s for much of the film, she is every bit as good as a proud, resilient woman who is left absolutely crushed. She delivers the biggest emotional punch of the film in a scene that will no doubt play as she wins her Oscar later this month.
Where the film slightly falls down is in an extended epilogue that begins to drag – the film is almost two-and-a-half hours long – and ultimately feels a little too sympathetic toward Troy. Though he is never presented as a perfect character and his flaws are well established from the off, he is let off the hook a little bit in a finale that’s all too forgiving and borderline sentimental.
Nonetheless, Fences is a solid, moving piece of work that highlights the lives of ordinary people and, through their relationships, explore the kinds of sacrifices that people make in their lives, the disappointments and resentments that linger over time and the ongoing ways that race and class can hold someone back. It’s a dense and richly textured film with two of the most stunning performances of the year from Washington and Davis.