Fences is a powerful and flawed film about an even more flawed and powerful man. Denzel Washington directs and stars in this adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play that chronicles the life of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950’s Pittsburgh who’s struggling to come to terms with his life. Washington played the role on Broadway in 2010, and has reunited with his cast, including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson. (The only newcomers are Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney as his two children, both of whom do an admirable job of holding their own amongst such well-practiced heavy hitters.)
The film opens to a black screen, and we hear a man, his voice heavy with southern regional dialect telling a story about a co-worker, his speech littered with n-words. The screen comes to life and we see two men, Troy and Bono (Washington and Henderson), heaving trash into the back of a garbage truck. They are poor, black men, originally from Alabama. Throughout Fences, Washington both affirms and challenges what we think we know about Troy. While his daily life includes the hardships that accompany being poor and black in mid-century America, his existential crisis transcends race and class.
It’s evident from the first full scene that this movie is based on a play. The extensive dialogue and lengthy monologues make sense coming from Troy, who spends most of his time outside of work drinking gin and subjecting his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and friend Bono to his colorful ramblings. This is a talkie film about a very talkative man. Troy has an opinion or a tale about everything. ”You got more stories than the devil got sinners,” says Rose. He has lived quite a life—raised in poverty in Alabama as one of eleven children, then onto playing baseball in the Negro Leagues as a star batter, then accidentally fathering a child, and eventually turning to petty crime, which lands him fifteen years in jail.
But then Troy met Rose, who is now his wife of eighteen years and the father of his high school-aged son, Cory (Adepo). She’s a loving mother and supportive wife, who not only tirelessly humors Troy’s stubbornness and eccentricities, but also acts as the peacemaker between him and Cory, whose relationship ranges from tense to combative. She’s welcoming to Lyons, Troy’s adult son from a previous relationship, and tender with Gabe, Troy’s brain-damaged, war-veteran brother. Rose is the thread that holds this fragile family together. In Davis’ eternally capable hands, her sacrifice and long-suffering come across not as passive survival, but as active resilience and radical, powerful love.
Troy, on the other hand, paces and stalks like a caged circus lion. Washington is as good here as I’ve ever seen him. On the surface, Troy loves the performance of his current life and the audience of his friends and family, but underneath bristles a longing for the freedom of the past, and a deep, bitter resentment towards the hand life has dealt him. He resents the father who failed him both financially and morally, and the society that, due to race and age, prevented him from having a professional baseball career. He resents his current employer for failing to see his potential. And, perhaps more than anything, he resents his son Cory—for having it easier than he did, for asking too many questions, for wanting to play football and go to college, for timidly seeking his father’s love, and for being a continual reminder of what Troy was and could’ve been.
The layers of Washington’s Troy are so subtle that at first I thought all this resentment and bluster might just hide a heart of gold. He’s a tough but fair father and an exasperating but loving husband. But Troy’s tall tales and playful loquaciousness hide not a heart of gold but a deep-seeded disappointment that has hardened into something far more dangerous—a meanness that aims to wound and a selfishness that will eventually destroy. Before the credits roll, he will devastate and alienate those who love him most. Washington deftly and unpredictably alternates between the many sides of Troy, revealing flashes of his past casanova, the mischievous criminal, and the confident ballplayer, all while remaining firmly grounded as his current middle-aged self, posturing in self-assuredness even as he’s damn near paralyzed with fear. Troy is a king in rags, and the pride with which he clings to his imitation robes is both tragic and pathetic. I hated him even as I felt sorry for him.
As a director, Washington wisely avoids any technically flashy work or the temptation to include flashbacks or dramatizations. He keeps the focus on Troy and his family, and all but a handful of scenes take place in the Maxson’s house or yard. These intentional limitations elicit the same restlessness in the audience that Troy feels onscreen. There’s no better way to convey the shrinking scope of Troy’s life than to physically fence him in and limit his visible interactions to those with his immediate family. Washington’s one foray into montage, after a particularly horrific blowout between Rose and Troy, is out of place. It interrupts the slowly building tension and causes the scenes that follow to feel more tiresome than emotionally suspenseful.
Which leads me to the only other weak point of the film. Film has the advantage of being able to direct the viewer’s attention to a specific reaction or image; in the theater, the audience is free to give their attention to whatever catches it. So when Washington repeatedly focuses the camera on close-ups of Troy’s makeshift baseball, tethered to a tree in the backyard, the intentional symbolism is too heavy-handed. The finale is weakened by a number of these visual motifs, which were presumably more subtle as set pieces and production choices in the theater than they are as the subjects of close-up shots projected on a wall-size screen at the movies. Washington’s directorial touch is best when it’s the most lightly felt.
It’s impossible, and even irresponsible, to reflect on Fences without considering the impact race has had on Troy’s life. But to say this is a story about “race relations” is a gross oversimplification. Although both race and poverty are two of the fences that have kept Troy rooted in place, the fist he shakes is not aimed at society. Nor is it aimed at his familial relationships. Troy is grappling with something even bigger than how to be a black man, or a poor man, or husband/father/ brother/son/friend; he’s grappling with how to be a man at all, an aging man, a failing man, and ultimately, a mortal man. He’s screaming at the skies, at God, the Devil, Death….that’s who his ultimate beef is with. The final shots attempt to leave us with some resolution, though I felt none. Two hours is not enough for Troy, Washington, or any man to examine and resolve the questions that have been plaguing humans since the dawn of time. I was thankful for the sense of peace awarded to the characters of Rose and Cory for their own sake, but I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Troy, scowling rather than smiling at the sky, still demanding Who am I? Why am I here? Why must I suffer?
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.