Most of the buzz around Fences has been around the individual performances of Viola Davis, seen as the heavy favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar, and Denzel Washington, who play Rose and Troy Maxson, the center of this film set in 1950s Pittsburgh. That’s both the movie’s strength and its weakness: This is an ensemble of great acting performances around a script that’s very talky, the way a play on a stage needs to be but a filmed version does not. (The film is based on the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, who died in 2005.)
Troy is a 53-year-old trash collector in Pittsburgh who portrays himself as a devoted husband and father, a strong provider, and a bon vivant, only for the complexity of his character and contradictions of his (offscreen) actions to become clear as the movie progresses. Troy played in the Negro Leagues – this movie has a lot of baseball talk in it, and the playwright behind it, August Wilson, obviously knew his baseball – but was denied his chance due to his race or perhaps his age, although he remembers it one way and his wife the other. Troy’s self-built narrative takes one hit after another as we meet his sons, learn the story of his war-wounded and addled brother Gabe (a tremendous turn by Mykelti Williamson), and discover the secret he’s been hiding from Rose that turns the entire story upside down, giving Davis control of the second half of the film to deliver her very Oscar-worthy performance.
Davis dominates her time as the wronged wife, but Washington’s work, especially in the first half of the film where he’s the storytelling, bullshitting center of every scene, seems a little too on the nose. I haven’t seen the play, so I lack that means of comparison, but either the script or Washington’s interpretation of it – especially the way he voices his lines from his jowls – seems to border on caricature, in a way that particularly emphasizes Troy’s race.
Yet Fences is not inherently a movie about race or racism – there isn’t a white person to be found except the nameless driver of Troy and his best friend Bono’s garbage truck – and only a portion of Troy’s misfortune is due to his blackness. His downfall is not the color of his skin, but his willingness to rationalize all of his mistakes, from mere errors in judgment to total lapses in responsibility, because they felt right in his heart. He’s kept his sons at arm’s length for different reasons, but in both cases it has produced damaged relationships. He has a good, eighteen-year marriage to a devoted wife, Rose, who has chosen a life of subjugation to her domineering husband and his expansive personality, but he throws it all away because, in his mind, of his need to escape the stress of being the sole provider for the family. That’s a role on the stage that would require a huge persona to fill up the theater, but Washington seems to bring the bluster along with the bravado in a way that overwhelms the rest of the family throughout the first half of the film.
Fences is much stronger as a document about women, and perhaps their role in the newly upwardly-mobile black communities of the 1950s, where the door had just begun to open on financial opportunities for black men, at least in the north and west of the U.S. Rose reveals, in one of several speeches that could form her Oscar nomination reel, that she suppressed her own goals in life because she found that accommodating Troy left no “room” for her, only to find that Troy has betrayed her in the most treasonous way possible. This is The Remains of the Day for the working class, and a story in which one of the two characters looking back on a life of lost chances gets a second act to try to regain what they gave up.
As for the fence of the title, Troy and his son Cory (played meekly by Jovan Adepo, later upstaged by a six-year-old girl) are supposed to be building one around their property at Rose’s request, and the fence serves as a clumsy metaphor for Rose’s attempts to keep her family close to her and Troy’s goal to keep the Angel of Death out. It never worked for me, both because it was too overt a symbol and because we don’t see enough of Rose’s strength in the first half of the film to reinforce the metaphor.
Fences is a better film than I may have implied here – it’s flawed, but in small ways, factors that keep it from being as strong as Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It’s also a pure joy to watch Davis, Williamson – playing a character who is childlike as a result of a serious head injury he suffered in World War II, without veering off into clownlike caricature – and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) just do their thing, delivering precise, full-bodied performances in a movie that is largely a showcase for them. Even Washington, for all his scene-chewing, is a magnetic presence on the screen; I think I have more complaint with his direction, such as some needless close-ups of characters in anxious or pensive moments, than his acting, although he’ll probably get nominations for both. He infuses the character with rakish charm in the opening scene, and then allows the character’s actions and justifications to chip away at our admiration until, by the time of the Big Reveal, there’s little left but a shell that Troy himself can’t put back together, no matter what he tells Rose or himself to defend it.