It’s almost inevitable that the screen version of any great play is going to feel a mite stagey, not just because of confined settings but because of conventions of construction and what, to ears attuned to the sort of language employed in the vast majority of movies, will sound like theatrically elevated dialogue. That’s as true of films of modern classics like “Death of a Salesman” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as it is of every Shakespeare adaptation. It’s also the case with Denzel Washington’s take on August Wilson’s “Fences,” one of the late Pittsburgh playwright’s ten-installment cycle of “Century Plays” designed to mirror the African-American experience over time. But any lack of simple realism hardly matters when the text is as brilliant as Wilson’s and the portrait it paints is as vividly and poignantly delivered as it is here.
Washington, taking on a role originally played by James Earl Jones that he first assumed in a well-regarded 2010 Broadway revival, gives a highly charged performance as Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. He’s a character that might be described as larger than life, but for the fact that he’s recognizably real—a man at once proud of his accomplishments in the face of adversity and equally conscious of the racial barriers he’s had to struggle against. He’s managed, despite a troubled upbringing, to make a stable life for himself and his second wife, Rose (Viola Davis, brilliant), in a simple but functional house with a modest backyard that serves as a focus of activity. As he recounts in animated conversation with his long-time work buddy Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, superb), he’s just asked the department brass why all the blacks in their employ are collectors rather than drivers (a complaint that will earn him a slot as the first black man behind the wheel of a truck).
But Troy is beset by demons born of his own experience. He was a star in the Negro Baseball League before a player could move into the majors, and that continues to eat away at him, explaining his dismissal of the younger blacks who have integrated the game now. His failure to break the color barrier has nurtured the certainty that his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo, who shows enormous promise), a high school football star, can’t take seriously an offer from a college scout; he orders the boy to keep his job at the local market instead of staying on the team, declaring that what Cory has to do is work his way up to a stable job rather than dream about things the system will never allow.
Troy has other strong opinions as well. One is the bitingly frugal attitude he takes toward his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an easygoing musician who resists what he sees as his father’s drone-like attitude toward work. Troy, of course, won’t even make the effort to go to hear Lyons play, while sticking to his guns in refusing to lend him money. He’s more solicitous of his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, affecting), a vet who came back from the war with a steel plate in his head who’s become the neighborhood eccentric, arrested periodically as a public nuisance and needing to be sprung from jail. As it happens, however, there’s a reason why Troy feels so obligated to watch over his brother besides the fraternal bond—and in the end his practicality will win out over family ties anyway.
It will turn out, in any event, that Troy’s greatest failing will involve his devoted wife, whom he will betray in the most fundamental way, mingling apology and justification in a fashion that brings her to desperation. It’s here that Davis, who until this point has maintained a steadily supportive tone, comes into her own, lashing out with a degree of passion that sets the screen ablaze. But as the final scenes show, she remains a rock who, however damaged by life she might be, refuses to shirk what she sees as a fundamental responsibility.
It would be foolish to ignore the kinship between Troy Maxson and Willie Loman, or between Wilson’s play and Miller’s. But while the earlier work was basically about class, “Fences” adds the racial factor to the equation, with devastating effect. And the sheer beauty of language, but without forced poetry, is something one rarely encounters on the screen nowadays. Wilson himself did the adaptation when a screen version was contemplated back in the late eighties but floundered over the choice of a director, and Washington has wisely embraced it here. Working closely with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen in the actual Pittsburgh neighborhood where the play was set, he has also given the piece visual fluidity without the sort of forced “opening up” of the action that a less sensitive helmer might have opted for. All the remaining technical contributions—David Gropman’s production design, Sharen Davis’ costumes, and Hughes Winborne’s editing—are unobtrusively expert, while Marcelo Zarvos’ score is subtly supportive.
Like all the plays in Wilson’s cycle, “Fences” is historically significant, but more importantly it remains dramatically powerful, and this fastidious yet vibrant film ensures that nothing has been lost in its translation to the screen. The play is a classic, but in Washington’s hands it has thankfully not become a museum piece.