Fences full movie review - Rich and Entertaining, but Stage-Bound
In Fences, Troy Maxton is a middle-aged trash collector living in mid-1950s Pittsburgh with his wife Rose and their high school-aged son Cory.
Maxton was once a baseball player of some promise in the Negro League. Unfortunately, the color barrier was not broken in major league baseball until Maxton's prime had already passed?although a thirteen-year stretch in prison for an accidental murder also undoubtedly contributed to Troy's failure to reach the big leagues.
As the picture begins, Troy's thoughts are occupied with a confrontation he recently initiated with his employer over an essential unfairness: The relatively-menial task of garbage collection is being performed by black employees, while the less-strenuous and higher-paying position of driving the garbage trucks is assigned to whites. On their walk home from work, Troy vows to this friend Bono that he intends to pursue the resolution of the unfairness, even if it costs him his job.
Arriving home, however, Troy is also surprised by his wife with the information that their son Cory is being scouted by a major university, with the intention of recruiting him for a football scholarship?rewarding the son with a free education in exchange for his athletic abilities. Troy's reaction is surprising: The elder Maxton is mistrusting: Nothing, he claims, is ever given away for free, and the son is better off where he is?finishing school and keeping his job working weekends at the nearby A&P grocery market. It is suggested that Troy resists the son's college scholarship because he fears the son exceeding his own modest accomplishments.
Also members of the Maxtons' extended family are Troy's younger brother Gabriel, and Troy's adult son Lyons. Gabriel is a World War II veteran who sustained a disabling combat wound, and is now mentally disabled and living on a veteran's pension. $3000 paid to Gabriel by the US government for his wound was used by Troy to purchase the Maxtons' home, with the understanding that Troy and his family would be Gabriel's caregivers, although as the picture begins Gabriel has recently moved into the home of a woman in the neighborhood, to whom the Maxtons pay a monthly rent.
Troy's primary pursuit during evenings and weekends is the construction of a wooden fence around the perimeter of the backyard of the Maxton home. The reason for the fence is variously suggested as a means of protecting the family from the outside world, isolating the family in a domain where Troy is their sole provider, or as a means of keeping death?the Grim Reaper?away from Troy. In this manner, the Angel of Death becomes almost an unseen member of the picture's cast. The fence also is symbolic of the barriers Troy has erected between himself and his sons.
Originally produced in 1983, a limited 13-week stage revival of Fences was staged in April of 2010 at Broadway's Cort Theatre. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, and won three Tony Awards?for Washington and Davis as Outstanding Actor and Actress, and for Best Revival of a Play.
The movie is directed by star Denzel Washington, and Washington the director serves the source material of Fences well?possibly a little too well. Although August Wilson died in October of 2005, prior even to the acclaimed Broadway revival of Fences, Wilson is credited appropriately as the author of the picture's screenplay, "based upon his play." And with very few exceptions, a filmed version of the Broadway play is what we see with Washington's motion picture version.
Most of the cast?-Washington and Davis, Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as Troy's adult son Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono?-also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. And after certain key scenes, Washington the director even allows the screen to fade to black?for the viewer, it's impossible to not imagine the curtain descending in a stage production, to provide a break between scenes.
But stage-bound depiction aside, Fences as a movie is an honor to watch, if not precisely a pleasure This is not a happy picture, and family patriarch Troy Maxton is revealed throughout the drama as a deeply-flawed individual. But the production is remarkably well-crafted, almost flawless, making superb use of its filming locations in Pittsburgh's Hill District, although the exteriors are seen in only a few shots. Backgrounds are digitally added showing 1950s-era steel mill smokestacks. And the production design is nearly perfect?even the garbage collected by Troy and Bono looks authentic, although the laundry Rose hangs on the clothesline in the backyards sometimes looks like it's already been dried and pressed.
And the acting is uniformly superb by all cast members. At age 62, Denzel Washington as an actor has become nearly a force of nature, and plainly in Fences he's never been better or more effective. The sight of Washington opening a window during a rainstorm to bellow in rage at the Angel of Death reminds the viewer that film acting just doesn't get any better than this.
Matching Washington eyeball-to-eyeball, if not scene-to-scene, is the excellence?almost saintliness?of Viola Davis as Rose. Davis' performance is a revelation, nearly an epiphany, and makes the viewer wish her gift as a performer could be used in more motion picture productions beyond the supporting roles she's played in other, more inferior films. This is not a supporting role?Rose could easily be advertised as the primary character in Fences.
Fences the motion picture is also a work in which time has caught up with the artistic intentions and expressions of author August Wilson. Is Fences still relevant, thirty years after its stage premiere? Absolutely. More than age or affluence, inequality, generations, unfairness, politics, or even race, Fences is a movie about American life.