Of the many warped life lessons given in Fences by Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), the one that hits hardest is that a father doesn’t need to like his kids to be a good dad. It’s indicative of the hardscrabble life of repetitive poverty that has shaped Troy’s outlook that all that matters to him is financial responsibility, with all the love he’s capable of spent on his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). It’s a bold move for Fences to have a protagonist with such a disagreeable worldview, but this incredibly faithful adaptation of August Wilson’s play (Wilson himself gets the screenwriting credit) uses it to effectively lead a compelling look at race, family, and money struggles.
Fences not only sees Denzel Washington’s finest screen performance in years, but also has him behind the camera for only his third ever stint as director. Reprising his role as Troy from his Tony-winning turn on stage, Washington makes sure to keep the incredibly dense and grounded dialogue, meaning that the first few moments can be a bit bewildering before you settle yourself into the film’s groove. That the first point at which you can catch your breath is in an argument about money is a telling set up for what is a richly drawn look at the best and worst of black working class life in ‘50s Pittsburgh.
Troy is a man who initially seems like a vibrant and exciting man, and you can see how so many would be drawn to him, whether as a friend or a husband (his elder son, Lyons – played by Russell Hornsby – is not Rose’s). But as we get to know him better, we see him for the vain, delusional specimen that he really is. There’s no doubting that his life has been difficult – his story of his abusive father is show-stopping – but Troy feels so hard done by that he has no capacity to ever admit that he’s in the wrong, a flaw that becomes more and more unforgivable as time goes on.
Though Fences has multiple story strands, and is first and foremost a character study of Troy and Rose, the key throughline is Troy losing his fear-based control of Cory. This happens slowly, but the key confrontations always land with a genuine sense of stomach-tightening tension. Not only is Troy a self-righteously furious man, but his athletic past as baseball player means he has retained a physical presence and capacity for violence that most men his age lack.
Fascinatingly, Troy completely rejects music and sports as paths for his sons to take, despite their traditional roles as escape routes from poverty, particularly black poverty. His pre-Civil Rights experience means that he can’t envisage a world in which black people are allowed to participate in these pursuits to the point of success, leaving it up to Rose to act as the inspiring parent. Troy’s point that gaining a trade is more valuable, as the system can’t rob you of that kind of skill, is a valid one, but both his sons display so much talent in their respective fields that his denial is eventually outed as properly cruel.
Washington’s direction continues in the same fashion as the script in its loyalty to the original play, meaning that Fences does feel very stagy. This isn’t inherently a bad trait, and the production design imbues the limited locations with plenty of life and history, helped by the fact that we get to know these places intimately over the 140 minute running time. It is a little indulgent at times, but the emotional power packed in by the script and performances more than make up for these occasional failings.
Washington and Davis are both absolutely superb in these roles. Having already played Troy and Rose together on Broadway, these are characters that the actors are already very familiar with, and they calibrate their performances perfectly for the screen. Davis puts herself way out in front of the Supporting Actress race with a powerful and vanity-free display. Kind but long-suffering, Rose has the weight of years of unfulfilled dreams on her shoulders, and Davis articulates this wonderfully, making it clear to the audience how much pain she has to hide for the sake of her family.
Washington is perhaps even better, switching on a dime between motormouth charm and seething, silent rage. He’s genuinely scary, and gets the lion’s share of the monologues as he repeatedly challenges death itself to attempt to take him. Stephen Henderson, playing Troy’s old friend Bono, is the other cast member who reprises his Broadway role, and he, Washington, and Davis all share an easy and natural chemistry. Elsewhere in support, Mykelti Williamson does a moving, sensitive job as Gabe, whose wartime brain damage has rendered him more child than man, and Adepo puts in a star making turn as Cory. Though it may not pack in many surprises as an adaptation of a play, Fences delivers mightily well in every area you’d expect it to, with two of 2016’s very best performances at its centre.