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Don't Fence Me In

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington
Paramount Pictures
 139 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

As Denzel Washington settles comfortably into late middle age, it’s easy to lose track of just how good an actor he is. Over the last decade, he has had only one role (his Oscar-nominated performance in Flight) that’s in the least bit challenging. Otherwise, he has lent his name and acting gravitas to a series of generic roles in generic action films in exchange for some undoubtedly substantial paychecks. Washington was generally quite good, and the films themselves weren’t horrible, but we’ve missed out on the electricity that marked his Malcolm X or Alonzo Harris from Training Day. But just when it seemed that Washington was stuck in a rut of remakes of old TV series and vintage Westerns, he finally gets another role he can sink his teeth into, the tragic, bullying force of nature Troy Maxson in the film version of August Wilson’s Fences,


Fences is one of a group of ten plays written by Wilson, dubbed the Pittsburgh Cycle, documenting his version of the black experience in the various decades of the 20th century.  Fences is widely considered the best of the Cycle, having garnered a Pulitzer and a Tony in its initial release. Further, the 2010 revival also won the Tony Award, as did the lead actors (James Earl Jones and Washington) and actresses (Mary Alice and Viola Davis) in both versions. So, the movie version of Fences arrives on screen with an impressive lineage and a cast and crew that know the material quite well, as the film reunites most of the actors from the cast of the 2010 revival and Washington himself handles the directing chores. With a marvelous combination of material (August Wilson wrote the screenplay a decade ago and died shortly thereafter) and talent, it’s no surprise that Fences is one of the best films of the year and a surefire Oscar nominee.


As the movie begins, Troy Maxson is a lower middle class sanitation worker in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s. He has a wife Rose (Davis) who looks after him, a fairly good job (he’s up for a promotion to truck driver, which would make him the first black driver in the city), a star high school athlete son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and a pal from work, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who listens to his stories each weekend. For Troy loves spinning stories about his youth playing in the Negro Leagues and his fanciful exploits wrestling the Grim Reaper himself.


But life isn’t all that great for Troy, as the movie soon makes clear. He has a son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from an earlier relationship, a mostly unsuccessful musician who only comes around when he needs money, and Troy’s authoritarian manner threatens to drive his younger son away. He also tries to care for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered brain damage in World War II. Finally, he reveals that he is having an affair with a woman from work who dies during childbirth. Troy agrees to take the baby in, causing Rose to re-evaluate their marriage.


Troy Maxson is one of the great tragic heroes of the American stage. He’s a force of nature, a man who lets his emotions show at all times, the kind of guy who’s a lot of fun to share a beer with, but one who is plagued by the demons of his own failures. He did time in his youth and never made it to the big leagues, he used the money the Army gave Gabe to buy his house, and he betrays the previously loyal Rose. So, in retaliation and, because his own father mistreated him, Troy takes his frustrations out on his sons. Lyons is an easy-going failure who provides ample grist for Troy’s ridicule, but Cory seems destined to achieve the athletic success Troy never managed, causing Troy to seek out any perceived flaws to punish in his son.


Troy Maxson is a great role, and Washington captures all the complexities of the character. Washington uses every bit of his charm here to make Troy as appealing as possible to his friends and wife. He blusters and postures, swaggering throughout, but beneath it all, the insecurities show through. When everything finally falls apart for him, he still manages to elicit sympathy from the audience or, at the very least, understanding. Throughout the movie, Viola Davis matches Washington, scene for scene. At first she is content to occupy the traditional supportive wife role, but when Troy’s straying and its consequences reveal themselves, so does she, soon demonstrating that she is the one with real strength in the family.


Throughout the film, the stage origins of Fences are quite obvious. Scenes are long and static, but that allows the audience to pay attention to Wilson’s dialogue. Plus, Washington, as director, treats several scenes as if they are scenes from the play, with himself and the other actors projecting their performances to the rear of the house. The effect may not be perfectly lifelike, but the action and emotions fit with the audience’s perception of the characters.


If Fences has a weakness, it’s the character of Gabriel, who never seems fully realized and whose presence in a handful of scenes seems more of a distraction than what it should be, an additional insight into another one of Troy’s failed relationships. It’s clear that, of all the people he’s wronged in his life, Troy feels most guilty about Gabriel, but the scenes involving Williamson don’t quite work. It’s not the actor’s fault; Mykelti Williamson does a good job of portraying the scared and befuddled Gabriel. Instead, it seems more a function of the original script. Of all the characters in the movie, Gabriel feels the least like a real person and more like a distraction used to break the tension at certain moments in the film.


Fences is a rarity in today’s movies, a drama about a family that doesn’t wind up becoming either a feel-good bonding experience or utter silliness. The movie never cuts corners or cops out, instead providing over two hours of intense confrontations, highlighted by near-career-level work by its two leads. At the end, the audience has gone through perhaps the most powerful dramatic experience of the year. Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In this case, good performances make Fences an extremely good film.

In this scene, Jovan Adepo confronts Denzel Washington.

Read other reviews of Fences:


Fences (2016) on IMDb