Something becomes quickly apparent in Denzel Washington’s version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony winning 1983 play: It’s screenplay is stronger than its existence as a movie. Despite Washington’s best efforts to make the movie cinematic, like moving scenes from the backyard setting of the play or throwing in sequences of montage, it’s the dialogue that always stands out, and my, does it have a stark story to tell.
Fences marks the third time Washington has directed a movie in which he has a feature role. For this, Washington reprises his Tony-winning role in Wilson’s acclaimed play, which Washington helped revive on Broadway in 2010. Also returning are Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. It’s basically the play made available in the theaters. The performances are great, and you can tell the actors find inspired energy in Wilson’s writing.
Part of Wilson’s famed “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences presents a black family in 1950s working-class Pittsburgh. Patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington) makes a living as a trash collector. The ache of a failed baseball career and a troubling relationship with his father cast a shadow over his success in fighting for a position driving the trucks. Rose Maxson (Davis, who also won a Tony) is his patient and weary wife, as Troy dishes out a cruel and complex tough love to his sons. His son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo), wants to take football practice seriously, as it could lead to a scholarship. His son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Hornsby), scrapes by as a jazz musician.
Though both young men are content to pursue their dreams and clearly receive pleasure from doing so, Troy transmits the pain of his missed opportunity to his sons in a troubling organic manner. We meet him and his co-worker Jim Bono (Henderson) riding a garbage truck, but it’s in the backyard where the dynamic comes to life amid sports talk, drinking and casual ruminations on death. Troy boasts about cheating death. As he likes to say, “Death is nothing but a fastball around the inside corner.”
There’s something musical about the dialogue. Even though there feels like there is repetition, the conversations are dynamic and never circular. A return to a theme is always pitched higher in characterization, as Troy’s past comes into sharper focus. One story about his long gone father stands as the film’s most vivid and chilling moment. It paints a palatable scene of disturbing action in monologue. It’s clear these are words made to make the stage vivid, and they never need heightening with cinematic flashback. It’s moments like these that overshadow anything Washington modifies for the cinematic medium.
Fences slacks when it deals with movies aspects like music and montage. The film actually drags in these moments because the dialogue is so strong. When Troy says, “I knew the time had come to leave my Daddy’s house,” it doesn’t need some maudlin piano melody to emphasize the sad separation between father and son, even if the father was a brute. The film survives on its powerful theme that only becomes disturbingly real in the exchanges between the characters, especially the inter-generational men. As Cory strains to avoid becoming like his father, their exchanges make it achingly clear: the more the boy pushes against it, the more it becomes apparent that he is his father. In the end, it’s the raw storytelling, indeed helped by some strong performances, that is the film’s strength.