Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has never given — and may never again give — a performance as deep and revelatory as he does in “Fences.”
This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning drama, directed by Washington, offers the ideal match of performer and part, allowing the actor to sink his teeth into a role so perfectly balanced in subtlety and grandiosity as to reduce most film acting to the level of cardboard cutouts.
The dialogue is rendered in a sort of mid-century black urban dialect, but the effect is nothing short of Shakespearean. In its power and complexity “Fences” feels like an African-American “King Lear.” (It opens Christmas Day.)
Set in the late 1950s in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s drama centers on Troy Maxson (Washington), a man fiercely determined to keep his dignity while fighting his own set of demons.
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A minor star of baseball’s Negro leagues, Troy was too old to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s integration of the majors, and that missed opportunity still rankles him. Now he works as a city trash collector and is noisily wrangling for a position as a truck driver, a gig usually restricted to whites. Troy sees that discriminatory policy less as a social injustice than as a personal affront.
Smooth-talking but essentially combative, Troy nurses old hurts that gnaw at his manhood. He can be outwardly friendly and garrulous, a raconteur and an entertainer. But he can turn on a dime if the wrong button is pushed, and then his belligerent, dark side flashes. Troy invariably has a loquacious argument to justify his transgressions, but push him too hard and the intimidating side of his personality steps up to slap down his critics.
The screenplay (Wilson’s stage play, with the addition of just one line of dialogue) provides Troy with an assortment of friends and family members who serve as his audience and occasional victims. Most of these roles are taken by the same actors who co-starred with Washington in an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival of the play.
Troy’s wife, Rose (a stunning Viola Davis), is a friendly, outgoing woman who has learned how and when not to push her explosive spouse. Often they seem true equals; at other times it’s obvious that Rose must walk on eggshells around her man.
At one point Davis puts on a hair-raising display of anger that may be the film’s most powerful moment.
Their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is a talented athlete, but Troy crushes his hopes of a college football scholarship, not wanting to set his son up for the same disappointments he faced. Or could Troy simply resent the idea that Cory might succeed where he didn’t? Adepo nails Cory’s eager ambitions and dashed dreams, not to mention a simmering resentment toward Troy that may last a lifetime.
Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older son by an earlier marriage, is a wastrel who borrows money and picks guitar in a shabby roadhouse. He has survived the wringer of Troy’s disapproval and found a survival technique in indifference.
Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) is a sweet-tempered man-child who suffered severe head injuries during World War II. Now he drifts about the neighborhood, trumpet in hand, semi-homeless. Williamson so firmly establishes Gabriel’s gentle innocence that we become doubly incensed at the way Troy treats him.
Another standout: Bono (KCK native Stephen McKinley Henderson), Troy’s fellow garbage collector and best friend. Loyal despite witnessing Troy at his worst, Bono is a sort of a tentative Jiminy Cricket, gently turning his buddy away from the destructive tendencies simmering inside. But there’s only so much anyone can do to bank Troy’s anger and appetites. Henderson’s portrait of low-key decency gives the film a moral anchor.
The movie’s title refers both to Troy’s long-planned project of fencing off his backyard (turning his home into something resembling a castle) and to the social barriers he sees erected against him — not to mention the walls he inadvertently has built between himself and others through his stubborn and self-centered behavior.
“Fences” was shot on location in Pittsburgh, but despite efforts to “open up” the material, it feels stage-bound. It’s virtually all talk, no action.
Nor is there a plot, as such. Just a series of conversations that over time reveal the many aspects of Troy’s complicated psyche.
On a performance level, though, this experience is nothing short of devastating.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:18.