Denzel Washington should need no introduction. He’s definitely a household name, and quite easily one of the greatest American actors alive today. August Wilson, however, may be a touch more obscure. Cinephiles may not know him, but Wilson is tremendously famous among dramatists, particularly those of color and those who want to examine what it’s like to be an African-American in modern times.
So here’s Fences, a screenplay that Wilson wrote — based on one of his own plays — before he died in 2005. It speaks volumes about Hollywood that Wilson insisted on an African-American director, and that was enough to stall the project for over a decade after he had died. And the director who took the job was none other than Denzel Washington, both starring and helming for the first time since 2007.
Of course, talent as a playwright doesn’t always mean equal success as a screenwriter (see: August: Osage County and Carnage). And talent as an actor doesn’t always mean success as a director (see: too many examples to list here). So does this pedigree mean something legitimately great, or so much critical hot air? Well, let’s take a look.
Our stage is set in the 1950s, where we meet the family of Troy Maxson (Washington). I’m not going to try and recap his life story here, but suffice to say he went through a lot of hard times and broken dreams before carving out a career for himself on the back of a garbage truck. Troy himself doesn’t have a driver’s license — he can’t even read — yet he vocally complains about how all the truck drivers are white, even though any black man could drive a truck just as well. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Troy makes a huge deal about how he earned everything he has. It’s his money, his house, his food, his property, and he needs all of it to provide for his family. And in all fairness, we can see for ourselves that he really does work himself to the bone, and it’s hardly a bad thing that he’s smart with his money. Yet when Troy’s oldest son (Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby) comes around asking to borrow ten bucks, all that stuff about providing for family goes straight out the window as Troy turns into a total miser and constantly rants about not giving away a dime.
(Side note: Remember when I said that dramatists love Wilson’s work? Well, Hornsby is one of them. Hornsby — now an honorary officer of the Portland Police, following his work on “Grimm” — recently participated in a local monologue competition, coaching Portland teenagers with monologues written by Wilson.)
Then we have Troy’s wife. Troy is madly in love with Rose (Viola Davis), and expressly says that she’s the only good thing that ever happened to him. And we can plainly see for ourselves that this is absolutely not hyperbole in any way. Yet right at the start of the movie, it’s established that Troy might be seeing a woman on the side. We eventually learn that Troy is tempted by the thought of taking a break from all of his responsibilities, getting away from his troubles and his baggage. And he’s completely ignorant — perhaps willfully so — of all the problems that will come if and when the bottom falls out, and everything new eventually becomes old again.
It also bears mentioning that Troy used to play baseball. This is important, as the whole movie leans heavily on baseball metaphors. See, Troy used to be a phenomenal baseball player, but he never made it to the major leagues. Maybe it’s because he was too old for it. Maybe it’s because he was ahead of his time and didn’t have the fortune to make it big after Jackie Robinson cleared the way. Or maybe — as Troy himself will say to anyone for as long as they’ll listen — it’s because he was the wrong color and he’s had an immediate disadvantage at everything from the moment he was born a black man.
So now Troy’s younger son (Cory, played by Jovan Adepo) is an ace at football. With the times changing as they are, and college recruiters just about literally knocking at the door, there’s a solid chance that Cory could seriously make something of himself. So naturally Troy takes every excuse and opportunity to sabotage his son’s chosen career, ostensibly to make sure the White Man never gets the chance to crush his dreams first.
There’s an exchange in the film (you can see part of it in the trailer), in which Cory asks why Troy doesn’t like him. Basically, Troy answers that he doesn’t have to like his son, he just has to provide for him. But of course the answer goes a lot deeper than that. Time and time again, we see that Troy hates himself, and he hates the parts of himself that he sees in his son. Moreover, Troy’s mind is set so that he’ll never be satisfied with his progeny, disappointed with them whether they turn out different from him or exactly like him.
(Side note: For those who don’t know, Denzel Washington’s real-life son went on to play college football, and he currently dabbles as an actor. All of which makes this storyline much funnier to me.)
But hey, at least Troy worked hard with his own bare hands to provide for his family. He never had to beg, steal, borrow, or barter for the roof over his head or the food on his table, right? Yeah, about that…
Troy’s brother (Gabriel, played by Mykelti Williamson) is a veteran who sustained a massive head injury in the war. Now that he’s got a plate in his head, he tends to wander the streets rambling incoherently about hellhounds, Saint Peter, Judgment Day, and so on. And because Gabriel is now disabled, he gets money from Uncle Sam. Which Troy — by his own admission! — uses to supplement his own income and pay for the house.
Put simply, Troy is a rank hypocrite. He means well, but he’s a hypocrite. And knowing that has so thoroughly eaten him up that there’s barely anything left of him. His emotional scars are deeper and wider than the goddamn Grand Canyon, and he alternately drowns himself in self-loathing and alcohol, which makes him poison to himself and everyone around him no matter how hard he tries to do right by his loved ones. The end result is that he’s grown deeply cynical. If it’s not something he can hold onto with his own two hands, it doesn’t exist.
Troy doesn’t bother with dreams or aspirations for anything greater, and he doesn’t put up with that from anyone else. He doesn’t listen to music or watch television, we know he doesn’t read books, and his feelings about sports are perfectly clear. He tells what stories and songs he already knows, he drinks, and he spends time with his wife. That’s it. He doesn’t even go out to hear Lyons’ band. There’s nothing in his life that’s any kind of fiction (because of course all of his stories are 100 percent true), and nothing that takes place outside his life or his home. He covers it up saying that he doesn’t have the time, he doesn’t have the money, he’s too old, but we all know that’s bullshit.
So far as he’s concerned, what you see is what you get. His life is the way it is, and it’s going to keep on being that way with every day perfectly resembling the last. He hates that, and it’s slowly killing him, yet he’s given up all power and hope of changing it. He’s quite literally willing and able to fight Death itself (in fact, to hear him tell the tall tale, he already has) just to keep everything exactly the way it is. Why? Well, “why” doesn’t really have anything to do with it. That’s just how it is.
A lot of this comes back to Troy’s responsibilities as a family man. In addition to everything he lost growing up, he had to give up his own dreams and caprices the moment he got married and had kids. Everything he’s been and done and sacrificed for the past eighteen years has been for his family. And it’s become just another factor in the erosion of whatever Troy Maxson might have been as a person.
Then again, as Rose points out, she’s been right there with him every step of the way for those eighteen years, making all those same choices and sacrifices. The difference between the two, however, is that Rose has made her peace with those decisions. Rose can reap the benefits of emotionally investing in people and relationships, growing as her own person while she raises a family and acts as a loving wife. Compare that to Troy, who only sees what he’s giving away. It’s not clear whether Troy can see or even wants to see what he’s getting in return.
In case it isn’t clear by now, it’s Troy’s internal conflict that serves as the driving force for what passes as a plot. Up until the third act or so, the film is mostly about developing the characters, setting up the potential conflicts, establishing Troy’s various hypocrisies, and so on. We know the character is sitting on a powder keg of his own making, so it’s just a matter of when it goes off, how it goes off, and how it affects the cast. The film’s a slow burn, is I guess what I’m trying to say.
From start to finish, the way all the dialogue is written and delivered, it’s abundantly obvious that this was meant to be a play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, to be clear. But when it comes to a small handful of characters talking with each other in a tightly confined space over however many scenes, live theatre will always be more immersive. After all, a stage really does have people talking and moving right in front of us, with a fourth wall that ranges from imaginary to non-existent. That’s tough to beat.
By comparison, this film is terribly inconsistent in that “you are here” feeling. There are too many roving Steadicam shots, and edits that go from shot to reverse shot in mere seconds. There’s even one brief shot of shaky-cam, to say nothing of the hackneyed montages. All of this draws attention to itself, which ruins the illusion that these are actual conversations going on between real people and we’re just dropping in to watch. And given how much of this movie hinges on its complex characters and intimate conversations, that’s not an insignificant problem.
That said, the fact remains that this dialogue is extraordinary and the characters are all deeply compelling. The actors are all good enough to craft superlative performances out of the rich material they’re given, and Washington is more than experienced enough on both sides of the camera to make sure that every line hits perfectly.
Fences is a very good movie, with richly layered themes, deeply complex characters, and superlative performances. Yes, the plot may be slow to get going, but there’s more than enough intrigue and great dialogue to sustain interest until things really get going. That said, I’m left wondering how much of this would still be true for a staged production, and whether this story is somehow better for being adapted to film.
Does this movie earn the right to exist? Well, it gave us these marvelous performances from Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Russell Hornsby, and Jovan Adepo, among others. And unlike a play, which only runs for a finite number of nights, this production will be around for all time. I’d say that’s enough reason for the movie to have been made, and for why it’s worth seeing.