Often, when plays are turned into films, people complain that they’re too “stagy.” That you can tell they were plays. Good heavens, not that! There are obviously different ways to tell stories. So if a narrative has a whiff of its theatrical origins, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Odd Couple or Glengarry Glen Ross, so what? If it’s powerful, it’s powerful. Period. Full stop. And you won’t find many films this year as powerful as Denzel Washington’s Fences.
Washington and his costar Viola Davis first wrestled with August Wilson’s great American play in a 2010 revival on Broadway. It’s a brutal piece, full of secrets and lies, foolish pride and fatherly guilt, and the unspoken compromises that couples make to keep the peace. Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh garbageman who comes home from work every day with his pal Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), bone-tired, thirsty for gin, and happy to see his wife, Rose (Davis), who’s usually in the kitchen wearing an apron and a smile. It’s the ’50s, and it’s clear who the boss of the household is. And just in case it isn’t, Troy lets everyone know, including his jazz-musician son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), whom he considers a freeloader. As Troy frequently points out in one of his blustery sermons about self-reliance, his sweat and labor are responsible for the roof over everybody’s head.
Washington, directing his first film since 2007’s The Great Debaters, doesn’t get too flashy behind the camera. And that feels right. Wilson’s characters and blue-collar milieu are so vivid, they don’t require any adornment or extra sizzle. There’s plenty of that in the rich language. As Troy holds court in his cramped backyard, railing about injustices both big (racism) and small (the baseball career that never happened), Washington gradually turns him from a stern, all-bark patriarch into something close to a monster, dashing the football-scholarship dreams of his youngest son (Jovan Adepo) and betraying Rose. Undone by his pride and anger, Troy is a tragic figure, and Washington drills into his psyche like he’s prodding an exposed nerve. Davis, as his long-suffering wife who’s been bending so long she’s ready to break, responds with a ferocious slow-building intensity — she makes you feel Rose’s anguish in your guts.
Wilson’s title refers to the fence that Troy is building around his backyard. It’s his way of keeping the harsh, unfair world out and protecting what’s his. But Troy can’t open his eyes — or his heart — enough to see that he’s also walling himself off from everyone who loves him. Washington and Davis’ performances do just the opposite. They invite us in to an intimate place that’s messy and painful and hard to shake. It’s as good as screen acting gets. A–