Director: Denzel Washington
Screenplay: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Runtime: 139 Minutes
The Pittsburgh Cycle is the finest work of American playwright August Wilson; a series of ten plays that each focus on the Black experience in Pittsburgh's Hill District, spanning across the 20th century. Fences being the sixth instalment of said production, and Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the story reunites him with co-star Viola Davis in the roles that they both performed on stage back in its 2010 revival.
Washington and Davis portray Troy and Rose Maxson, seemingly content in a marriage of 18 years that began with an affair that destroyed his previous marriage. Troy is more than just a patriarchal figure here; his haunted past actions and squashed dreams of sports stardom hang heavy over him in his exhaustive weekly routines of anecdotes and stern temperament with a bottle of gin. Well into middle age, Troy is visibly and emotionally worn-out and conflicted with the world in a manner that he chooses to take out on his youngest son, Cory - played brilliantly by newcomer Jovan Adepo. A young lad who wants to play football and aspire to the dreams of his father, but is being constantly being held back by said father’s cold and irritated demeanour.
Troy is a man constantly at war with himself and his family, all the while trying to keep up the standards of the patriarchal family man that he wants to represent - crippled by the fact that he never seems to feel truly at home in his own skin, choosing to blame the colour of his skin and the prejudice of others for his failed aspirations, instead of circumstance and the fact that age is creeping up on him. His use of language as both endearment to his white friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and a threat to his own flesh and blood is absurdly contradictory.
He’s an aggressive, self-deprecating character in which Washington is able to find a human element. His performance is ferocious and he laps up the parched and luxuriant dialogue with great passion. Viola Davis is a damn hard worker in the industry, and here she usurps the film from beneath him in some of the film’s more devastating outbursts of upheaval.
This is a story where not that much actually seems unfold beyond a plain glimpse into the life of this family man, but his quest to build a fence in the backyard is where the film’s thematic strengths take hold. Troy is just as desperate to keep his family in as he is to keep death out – here constantly referenced to as a spectral figure who Troy once fought off, and is awaiting his return in later life. This kind of mythical weight to this storytelling is what elevates the whole thing to a level of a contemporary parable; from the relationships between father and son, husband and wife, white and black, there is a mania that settles into its fabled background as his mentally impaired brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) wonders in and out of the story spouting off gospel concerning hellhounds and the will of St. Peter – carrying with him the rusted trumpet that will open the gates of heaven.
It all sounds like a stretch, but the film balance’s its elements so well that it does feel quite unified. There are always issues when translating plays to the screen, but the main factor for success comes down to the manner in which you chose to present the text.
What Washington manages to do is find a compromise through the staging of its dialogue exchanges, primarily restricted in setting to the house of the Maxson family, the action moves between the interiors and exteriors of the space in this living stage - even if it can't fully escape its original medium. Much of drama unfolds in the backyard, boxed in by the adjacent buildings and feels like an environment designed to tell this story on a single plain, with frames and cuts precise and close enough to border on the intimacy of the flowing dialogue, while also managing to stress the tension of divergence. At 139 minutes, the film is a little long winded – especially without the benefit of interlude – and stretches this in its drawn-out climax.
This is easily the first genuinely great work Washington has starred in for a while, and the best work in the director’s chair that we’ve yet seen from him. It might not be essential viewing, but it’s confident in its material and deeply engaging to watch.