THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
In 1987, August Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Fences. It remains one of the most celebrated works in American theater. Denzel Washington starred in the play on Broadway and therefore understands it inside and out. That proves vital to the screen version of Fences, which is a rich, textured film with a powerful punch.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington (who also directed) plays Troy Maxon, a former baseball player in the Negro League who now works as a garbage collector. After a long day of work, he comes home to wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo). In the yard out back, he works to build a fence. His friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson) frequently comes over to shoot the breeze. Sometimes, Troy's mentally disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) wanders by.
I have described the characters before the plot, simply because they are the plot. Fences is a character study more than anything. As it goes on, we learn more and more about Troy, partially through how the others react to him. He initially seems like a gregarious guy, albeit one with an unfair stern streak when it comes to Corey. Some bitterness occasionally emerges from him. Troy is angry that his baseball career never took off the way he thought it would. He resents that only white garbagemen are allowed to drive the truck. Part of the reason Corey can never please him is that he thinks he's toughening the boy up for life's harsh realities, not realizing that his experiences are his own, as opposed to something that will repeat for everyone else.
There is a tender side, too. Troy loves Rose and the life they've built together. For all the moralizing he likes to do – and he does a lot, because he enjoys holding court – some very human foibles are only barely contained. Troy can be a bit of a hypocrite, demanding conservative behavior from those around him while simultaneously doing things he'd chastise others for in a heartbeat.
The point of Fences is between the lines. Troy's backyard fence is symbolic of something else – his own demons that he wants to keep at bay. (Or, looked at a different way, the ones he wants to keep contained.) As the story progresses, it becomes harder and harder for him to do this, leading to intense conflict with those closest to him. This is where Fences really becomes interesting. There's not a lot of overt action in the story. It's all interior, focusing on a man who has very particular ideas about how things should be, even as he grapples with his own lack of control in certain areas.
Washington gives one of his best performances, right up there with his work in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day. Time spent playing Troy onstage has allowed him to develop the particulars of the character in ways you rarely see on film. Washington adds little nuances and tics to give Troy onion-like layers. He's also developed his own deep understanding of Troy's inner turmoil, and because he has that understanding, the actor is able to convey it to the audience in an extraordinarily palpable manner. Consequently, you forget you're watching one of the biggest movie stars in the world and simply see Troy Maxon.
Viola Davis is every bit his equal. She, too, performed Fences onstage, so everything that can be said about Washington's performance applies to hers, as well. Rose starts off as a generally quiet, committed wife. About midway through, she hits her breaking point, lashing out at Troy for his self-centered nature. The moment knocks him – and us – for a loop. Then Rose becomes quiet again, but Davis captures an essential quality, which is that the character is now forcefully quiet. The way the actress projects Rose's I'm calling my own shots confidence is one of the story's high points.
Admittedly, Fences never quite escapes its origins as a play. There are long scenes of people standing around talking, often in the back yard. Washington, as director, tries to keep things fresh with camera compositions and effective staging. He does a good job. It takes a little time to adjust to the play-like vibe, but you eventually do. And really, Washington was smart to not try to make it something it isn't. The strength of Fences is in the writing and the acting, both of which are A+ here. (Wilson adapted his own screenplay.) When you have a piece as emotionally complex and dramatically rewarding as this, why mess with it?
Fences is a brilliant, deeply human adaptation of a masterwork.
( out of four)
Fences is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!