In 1983, playwright August Wilson released a play set in 1950s Pittsburgh, which went on to become a Tony Award winner and attracted talent such as James Earl Jones, Lenny Henry and Courtney B Vance in subsequent productions. Before Wilson’s death in 2005, he managed to write a screenplay of his production, which is now a full-length feature directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
Fences follows the troubles of Troy Maxson (Washington), a binman living with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), which explore race relations, family life and the pressures of being an African-American in the 1950s.
On the face of it, Fences resembles a dysfunctional family drama. With its simplistic layout, emphasis on racism, and the theme of men being the head of the family, it is a film fitting of its era. However, its faithfulness to the original play makes it a little bland and underwhelming in comparison to other films that have similar issues.
It is evident that Troy’s experiences of racism and past regrets have left him resentful, and despite his best intentions to his sons, he essentially prevents them from being successful. Along with the fear that they can achieve more than he can, he becomes a closed-off character whose irresponsible attitude and stubbornness further isolate him from the ones that support him. In comparison, the other characters such as Rose and Troy’s mentally handicapped brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) are more rounded and relatable, making them more empathic to the audience.
As former cast members of the Broadway production, Davis and Washington deliver powerhouse performances. Both complement each other – Washington’s loquacious, embittered Troy against Davis's stable, level-headed Rose – and they share a natural chemistry. Supporting cast members such as Williamson and Stephen Henderson, who plays Troy’s friend Bono, relate to Troy’s softer side and remind us that despite Troy’s behaviour, they are those who care about him.
Most of the dialogue is everyday banter, but the references and occasional sporting metaphors (the language that Troy resonates with the most, as it resembles the one opportunity to rise up) reinforce the theme of moving on and becoming more in life. By drawing attention to the closed-off Troy, Wilson and co-producer Tony Kushner create a script that is both era-relevant and respectful to the themes that some may consider sensitive. The direction is simple and evident that it is adapted from the stage to the screen. In Washington’s first directorial feature since Antwone Fisher in 2002, he focuses on the emotional fragility of the characters, which drives the one-dimensional narrative.
Overall, Fences feels too simplistic in production and style, but showcases intense, dramatic performances from Washington and Davis.
• This review first appeared on Musings of Guitargalchina