Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson; based on Fences by August Wilson
Cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Producer: Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington
by Jon Cvack
I grew excited for this film the moment I heard a question posed to Denzel Washington during THR’s 2017 Director’s Roundtable about how he chose to approach the material. Denzel Mentioned that it was really about preserving August Wilson’s base material and attempting to open up the location a bit more. I’ve been working on my own version of a chamber drama and seeing this film, with its incredible dialogue and phenomenal performances, provided one of the most motivational moviegoing experiences I’ve had all year. I’m not sure why there is even contention over whether Washington will take the statue, as I think this is one of the greatest performances he has ever given - making me wish I could have seen his revival of the role back on Broadway.*
The story opens former ballplayer and now garbage man Troy Maxson (Washington) who’s walking home with his buddy Stephen Henderson (Jim Bonco) from the garage, about to crack open their weekly pint of gin. Troy says hello to his wife Rose Lee (Viola Davis), who he genuinely loves and remains passionate for, even if it means making a few too many ribald comments while company’s over. The floodgates open fast, as the moment Troy pops the gin, he unleashes a fusillade of life philosophies that will continue on throughout the film, chiefly revolving around how he’s a Man because he works, has a wife, a son, and a home. Throughout the film we’ll learn how brittle the foundation of each of these things really is.
He’s soon visited by his son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), birthed from another marriage, who’s a struggling jazz musician with a bit of talent, constantly in need of some extra cash. Of course, with Troy’s pride comes a long lecture for the $10 loan Lyons requests, and how if Lyons only acted like a Man and worked a real job he wouldn’t have to lie about coming over only to borrow some money. The brilliance in this scene is that we don’t really know whether Lyons is just fibbing his way to get the cash, or actually plans to repay the money back. Since we don’t know much about Troy at this point, I floated toward the former, as initially Troy’s lightening fast philosophies seem sound, honoring the principle of a self-made man who hadn’t relied on anyone.
When Lyons leaves, we meet Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who’s Troy’s mentally disabled brother after WWII left him with a metal plate in his head. He carries a basket of vegetables, wears a horn, and talks about St. Peter. While Gabe now lives on his own, we soon learn that his disability left Troy with a $3000 payout, demonstrating that the house he takes so much pride in paying off was actually purchased in part by his brother’s misfortune.
Finally, we meet Troys third child, Cory Maxson (Jovan Adepo), who’s a varsity athlete, recently receiving a football scholarship to North Carolina. However, when ordered to help Troy build the fence he’s been meaning to put up in his backyard, we learn that he quit his job in order to keep practicing football. This goes against everything Troy has ever believed in, demanding Cory get his job back, and refusing to sign for the college scholarship unless he does so. Troy’s insecurities prevents him from seeing any opportunity for Cory as a professional player, as when he was coming up as a ballplayer “...better than Jackie Robinson”, no team would take him. And even if Cory does get to the professional league, the white owners would keep him down. Cory agrees to try and get his job back and work weekends in order to keep playing football, later dissenting once again from his promise.
One of the brilliant little nuggets that was sprinkled into the script is when Troy’s friend Jim warns Troy against talking to a new girl he’s been checking out. As with the uncertainty over whether Lyons will repay the money, I wasn’t sure if this was just an innocuous admonition, or serious issue. Of course we find out that it was very much the latter, as Troy later learns that the woman is now pregnant. And so comes one of the most powerful moments of the entire film, in which Troy explains to his wife what happened.
Viola Davis goes onto the earn every bit of the Oscar she received, delivering one of the finest dramatic performances I can remember of the last few years where she explains that, just like Troy confesses to having needs and desires, she does too; the only difference being that her love for Troy prevented her from ever pursuing them. It wasn’t just men she might have found attractive, but the dreams she had for herself and the things she wanted to accomplish. It was one of the strongest moments I could ever recall in demonstrating that infidelity for reasons of boredom is often more hurtful than for love; as it’s a confession to how the person feels toward their partner and how little respect they have.
Up until this point, we had seen Troy having a few too many drinks, becoming disrespectful toward Rose Lee as he gropes her in the front of the neighborhood, explaining what he wants to do to her, often reflecting his mega ego. What’s brilliant is that, as the two are portrayed as having a genuine affection for each other, Rose Lee is self-respecting enough to avoid drawing more attention to the awkwardness, never giving into his attempts. Once again, we see that for a man who brags about how he has all that a Man should - a wife, a house, and a kid - that all of those things are illusory and that, in fact, he’s very much still a child.
It brings us to the last relationship between him and his son Cory, as after Cory dissents, quitting his job entirely and returning to football, Troy castigates the child for disobeying him; telling him he has three more strikes and that's the first, before he kicks Cory out of the house. Troy grabs Rose Lee far too hard during the argument and Cory comes to her rescue, leading to strike two. The third comes when, after Cory visits the Marine Recruiter, figuring any chances of pursuing his dreams as an athlete are over, he comes home to find Troy wasted on gin, with Stephen nowhere to be seen. Troy prevents Cory from coming inside, launching the pair into an argument, quickly elevating to a physical fight, as Cory explains that his entire relationship with Tory has revolved around fear; as much as Troy can brag about all he accomplished, everyone sees right through it all - Troy has weaknesses like anyone else, many worse. While I figured Cory would get the upper hand, we witness Washington’s apex of talent as he unleashes a fury of drunken defenses, trying with all his might to avoid killing his son and retaining just enough of our understanding along the way. Such a scene demonstrates the power of a great actor; as they're somehow able to portray a side of humanity that you have rarely
It all leaves you wondering about the title Fences - how some build them to keep people in, while others build them to keep people out. Given the racial component of the story, in which Troy conveys a very bitter and staunchly individualistic philosophy, it’s clear that Troy very much doesn’t want anyone looking into his life and see the hypocrisy he possesses. He’s afraid of what else is out there, or what his sons could become; that they could do better than anything he ever imagined. On the one hand, we want to despise Troy as we discover his despicable self-regard, and on the other we feel bad that he very much is a victim of the environment he grew up in - having been treated as a second class citizen most of his life, where his skills couldn’t get him anywhere beyond a life of crime or the garbage truck. We understand his pride, and pity the fence he put upon himself. Taking care of what becomes three children from separate women, we get the sense that he just couldn’t admit or humble himself enough to understand that what he created could be beautiful and better than anything that he ever was.
It’s a film that I’m anxious to watch again, knowing that I’m only touching the surface of a very complex and profound story. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.
*I wrote this before the 2017 Academy Awards
BELOW: Although I wanted to share one of the great scenes, Washington's speech from the NAACP is one of the finest
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