It’s been a decade since Denzel Washington has directed and starred in a film (“The Great Debaters”). But there’s no rust showing on that combination of his talents in “Fences.” Written for the stage and adapted for the screen by August Wilson, it’s the story of Troy (Washington), an angry, frustrated man who has seen a lot of trouble in his life, regularly convinces himself that he’s always doing the right thing, and believes the world revolves around him.
Set in the 1950s, and tackling themes including racial inequality, marital relationships, father-son relationships, and personal responsibilities, the film features a very wordy script — the late August Wilson was a natural storyteller, and Troy is a guy who likes to tell stories, usually about himself — and maintains the feeling of a staged play.
This isn’t a bad thing, because a study of the characters here is much more important and interesting than what’s going on around them. Troy is first seen heading home from a long day at his job as an inner-city garbage man with his older co-worker and best friend — maybe his only friend — Bono (Stephen Henderson). This all seems like a routine for these guys: Sitting on a stoop in the mall backyard of Troy’s home, passing a pint of gin back and forth, complaining that only white men get to drive the trucks, while they’re stuck picking up the garbage. They talk back and forth, hardly taking a breath, with Washington showing early signs of the powerhouse performance he’ll deliver.
There’s an appearance by Rose (Viola Davis), seemingly happy in her 18-year marriage to Troy, or at least willing to put up with whatever guff he’s spouting, be it complaining about how great a ballplayer he could have been if only he wasn’t relegated to the Negro Leagues before WWII, or his reasons for never loaning money to his adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician who always manages to visit on his dad’s payday.
Lyons, it’s soon revealed, is Troy’s son from an earlier marriage, and even though he and Rose are close, she’s not his mom. Troy and Lyons have very little to say to each other. Then there’s Troy and his younger son — with Rose — Cory (Jovan Adepo), a talented high school athlete who would, to Troy’s consternation, rather be playing sports than doing his chores at home.
Troy and Cory do talk, but it usually turns into an argument. Troy and Rose talk quite a bit, and there’s laughter and happiness between them, right alongside an underlying tension, one that will later erupt due to Troy’s actions. The other family member in this group is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, who played Bubba in “Forrest Gump”), who regularly drops by, a trumpet slung over his shoulder, an obviously troubled, very damaged person due to something that happened to him in the war.
Gabriel is someone who Troy “cares” about, and the quotes are there for reasons that later become clear but, adding to his frustration, he can’t argue with Gabe because Gabe is so addled. There’s no traditional plot structure here, no simple story in the deep, colorful, often verbose script.
It all just seems to unfold, jumping between one situation and the next, very lifelike in the telling.
Although Troy remains right at the center of the story till just before the very end, and Washington directs himself to a great performance, with major shifts in vibrancy and demeanor, it’s Rose who’s really in control at the house, and Davis absolutely owns all of her scenes (I would just give her the supporting actress Oscar now, if I could).
Though audiences will have to decide if Troy is a good or bad person (he commits at least one unforgiveable act), it’s easy to root for everyone else, even those with faults showing.
But this is not a feel-good movie. It’s an eye-opener about how we treat ourselves and each other. It’s about people trying to find their sense of self, and how hard that is to do, be they man or woman, young or old, sane or bonkers.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now. “Fences” Written by August Wilson; directed by Denzel Washington With Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson Rated PG-13