“[Viola] Davis plays the housewife role with stunning emotional conviction”

by Steve Pulaski

The dialog in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s classic play Fences is basically stripped from the actual source material, which was also used for the Broadway play Washington and actress Viola Davis starred in during its run. I knew before seeing Washington’s film I had to read the play and I was captivated by its raw and real dialog, which not only paints the picture of an average and probably common family dynamic, but also the struggles of the African-American community so tenderly and authentically.

Some films wear their hearts on their sleeves in hopes you’ll cry and feel every moment of pain thanks to the film’s obvious and inauthentic manner of portraying emotion. Fences challenges you to sit with its characters, hear their conversations, their grievances. It confines you to a small backyard or living room, the only couple places where its lead character Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) feels like he’s worth a damn. Thirty years ago, he was a hot-shot player in the Negro Baseball League, batting over .400 against pitchers like Satchel Paige and the like. By the time Major League Baseball allowed men of color to play baseball, Troy got to hold, but was convinced his failure to be signed was one of the first in a long line of dead-ends he faced in his career, nonetheless running away from home and having his mother leave him.

Directed by
Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Release Date
25 December 2016
Steve’s Grade: A+

Now, Troy lives with his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) of eighteen years and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He works as a garbage man alongside his best-friend and former prison-mate Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). We drop in on Troy as two things have been ringing in his head: Cory and his prospects for being a college football player becoming more serious and the fence that Rose wants built around their small, cramped backyard. Troy has been adamantly against Cory playing football since the first day, believing it’s not only a distraction but a lost cause seeing as the white folks likely won’t let him play when it comes time for a big game. Understandably, Cory, who has slaved away at his dreams of being recruited, despite postponing some of his chores, is angered by his father’s opposition to his dreams and virtually everything else.

We spend time with the Maxson’s exclusively in their most private spaces, hearing their most private conversations and secrets. When Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who is mentally handicapped following head trauma in World War II, comes around, selling his fruits and vegetables believing he went to Heaven and is secretly Saint Gabriel, we learn that Troy’s ramshackle home was purchased as a result of a government pension Gabe received that Troy took in order to mortgage a home. This leaves Troy with a deep disgust that despite a successful stint in baseball, he’s now in his mid-fifties with nothing to show for it and now has a son he believes is disobeying him.

Just like in Wilson’s play, the dialog in Fences has a musicality to it. Melodic and lyrical as if it’s a classic folks song, the characters live and breathe in these small moments of thinning gin and sharing stories of yesteryear. Troy aimlessly babbles about the time he allegedly saw the Grim Reaper, in addition to when he met his loving wife Rose. Washington gives one of the best performances of his career as a character who isn’t easily defined like many of the other characters he plays. Quite frequently, Troy’s motivations remain foggy. He’s bitter but not miserable, and he simultaneously wants Cory to do better than him while not surpass him nor his level of authority. This is the kind of dichotomous character role that Washington just slips into.

But let’s not shortchange Viola Davis and her emotionally powerful role as Rose, who brings out Troy’s tender side while knocking him back down to earth. Davis plays the housewife role with stunning emotional conviction, reminding you the kind of power and urgency she brings to a scene that needs it. The only downside when you have two immaculate performances like this is you fear that the supporting cast of champions will be overlooked. This includes Jovan Adepo’s precocious performance, and Mykelti Williamson, who plays mentally handicapped in a way that’s both believable and affectionate without being mawkish. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain he’ll be overlooked.

August Wilson keenly summarized the pitfalls and hardships of the black community by making slice-of-life dramas and intimately written poems like “The Janitor,” and Fences works to capture that by presenting us with characters that aren’t easily defined and moments that are enthralling in how impacting they can be. Troy reminds me a lot of my father, with the exception of being supportive of me and my different course of action than his own. However, like my father, Troy’s also kind and supportive when it doesn’t really count. He tells others of how wonderful both Cory and Rose are, but then goes and does something horrible behind their back or belittles them as if to knock them back down a few notches behind him. Characters like this are complex but common and it’s nice to see one so brilliantly portrayed for the screen.

Finally, Fences has received a lot of criticism for being to “actor-y” and too much like a play. Every year, whether we get a film like Carnage or an adaptation of Death of a Salesman, we are subjected to the same flaccid criticism. May I ask why it’s such an issue that the film adaptation of Fences takes place in smaller settings and its pulse largely relies on incendiary, conversational dialog and the talents of household-name actors? It’s as if there is a deeper, more specific complaint people have with play-to-film adaptations and their choice words for criticism are these empty statements that do more in justifying a film’s strengths than its flaws.