From page to stage to screen, Denzel Washington’s rendition of August Wilson’s play “Fences” offers a window into the soul of a garbage collector living in Pittsburgh whose spirit has been slowly worn down after years of living from one paycheck to the next.
Directed by and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, this heart-wrenching film came to theaters on Christmas Day. The film was nominated for an Oscar in the categories of best picture, best leading actor (for Washington) and best supporting actor (for Davis). Set in the 1950s, “Fences” chronicles a troubled African-American man, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) who, after being denied a chance to play Major League Baseball, struggles to come to terms with the failures he has endured. He subjects his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and children, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo), to his bitterness, as he holds them back from almost every opportunity that arises.
On the surface, Troy is an easy-going garbage man who loves to joke around with his co-worker Jim Bono(played by Stephen Henderson) and his wife in the sunlit backyard of his house. Yet the viewer begins to see that he is wracked with guilt because he paid for his house with the money the government gave to his brother, who suffered a brain injury in World War II. We also understand the bitter disappointment he feels at being barred from playing in the Majors when he denies his youngest son, Cory, the chance to meet a College Football recruiter. The viewer than witnesses the family falling apart as Troy both annihilates Rose by admitting he is having an affair and throws Cory out of the house for defying him.
For the most part, “Fences” hits all the marks. Washington’s decision to maintain the intimate nature of a play by restricting the action to the Maxson’s house reveals the brilliant cinematography that makes this film feel so personal. As film critic Odie Henderson said in his review on rogerebert.com, “[The] masterful thing about Denzel Washington’s direction here is that he doesn’t exactly open up the play. Instead, he opens up the visual frame around the players.” Indeed, Washington’s choice to use camera angles that create a sense of openness or one of confinement adds a deeper sense of emotion to the dialogue.
Yet the rich, passionate dialogue remains the meat of the film. The intense, dialogue-filled scenes between father and son, and husband and wife allow the viewers to see the darkest depths of Troy’s troubles. After Cory asks his father why he never liked him, Troy tells him, “I ain’t got to like you,” and we see how his unaccomplished dreams have hardened his heart. When Troy tells Rose about how his affair allows him to become a different person, separate from the man who has “been standing in the same place for 18 years,” we understand the depths of his disappointment with the life he is living. And, finally, when Rose yells back “I been standing right there with you!” we understand the the sacrifice she has made to accommodate Troy’s struggles.
From these intensely moving scenes the viewer gets a sense of the hardship one endures when chasing an ever-escaping dream. No matter how hard Troy tries, he is stuck, and the dream he so dearly desires will always remain unattainable.
“Fences” eloquently captures the pain of loss and failure in its simplest form, and in doing so, reminds everyone of the importance of family when facing the disappointments of life because, as Troy learns after he tears his family apart, no one can bear life’s challenges alone.