Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburg who was once a promising baseball player. He was so gifted that he almost played professionally, but ostensibly missed out because he was too old to play when the league began accepting people of colour. The mixture of disappointment and resentment he feels causes Troy to slowly unravel, and he makes decisions which threaten to destroy his life, and the lives of his family. This is Washington’s third turn as a director, bringing to life August Wilson’s 1983 play, which was adapted for the screen by Wilson himself before his death in 2005.
Washington’s portrayal of Troy’s descent from a family man who is loveable and gregarious to a grandiose monster is measured and deliberate. As the film progresses, and more is revealed about Troy’s earlier life, we see that his bravado is a cover for a damaged man who has built up this legend of himself as a defence for his insecurity. Troy is a complex mess, a man who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, and it is a credit to August Wilson’s script and Washington’s skill as a performer that Troy doesn’t come off as a completely unsympathetic character.
Playing Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose, Viola Davis hits a home run. She imbues the role with warmth and solidity, and just the right amount of sass and sweetness. Her character is the emotional centre of the film.
The film’s origins as a play are clearly visible: most of the film is set in and around the Maxson house, and most of the impactful events take place off-stage – or rather, off-camera – and we are left to watch the consequences take place within this confined space. The script is rife with symbolism: the fence that Troy is building represents the barriers he put between himself and his sons, and the world; it also represents his wife Rose’s determination to protect her family.
Adapting a play for the screen is tricky: theater is an intimate medium, but with film there is a distance of time and space (and editing) between the work and the audience. This often means that the fabric of the work warps during the transition from stage to screen. Fences is very “wordy”, with a lot of monologues filled with symbolism which, in the hands of lesser performers, would topple over into the realm of hamminess. But when it’s coming out of the mouths of such high calibre performers, the dialogue almost sounds like music.
Most of the core cast played these characters in the Tony Award-winning 2010 revival of the play, for which Washington and Davis won Tony Awards. Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornby and Mykelti Williamson also reprise the roles they played on stage (as Troy’s best friend, eldest son and younger brother, respectively), and their familiarity with the prose translate into excellent performances.
Hollywood has a rich and storied history of adapting plays for the screen, with varying results. Fences fits into this tradition of stage-to-screen, so it’s nothing original but it works beautifully in two ways: it’s an intimate story told richly, thanks to August Wilson’s words and Denzel Washington’s direction (if occasionally teetering into the realm of melodrama); and as a showcase for a group of truly gifted performers.