I’m a huge fan of making films based on great plays. Fences, directed by, and starring, Denzel Washington (one of my all-time faves), is one of the best adaptations ever. The play, written by August Wilson in 1983, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.
Fences is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and virtually the entire film takes place in and around one particular house in a lower class (i.e. African-American) suburb, which is the home of the Maxson family: Troy (Washington), his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their seventeen-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy, now well into his fifties, used to be a baseball player in the Negro Baseball League and still resents the fact that he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Now he works as a waste collector for the city. This wouldn’t provide enough income to live in such a decent-sized house, but Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) was wounded in WWII and Troy is being paid to look after him, which he does.
Troy actually has two sons. His older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is a musician who wants nothing more than for his dad to watch him play someday. Cory is a star football player in high school, but Troy refuses to sign any paperwork that might help Cory get recruited by a college. Having had such a bad experience in sports himself, Troy wants something better for Cory. This, of course, results in deep resentments on Cory’s part. Meanwhile, Troy’s co-worker and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) stands beside Troy no matter what. As does Rose, up to a point. It’s not easy to stand beside Troy because he’s got a lot of issues and knows how to hurt everyone around him (he also scares people by talking about his experiences with Death, with whom he talks regularly).
The acting of the above-named actors is nothing short of phenomenal - one of the best ensemble performances in the history of film. Washington and Davis are sublime and deserve Academy Awards. Washington’s direction is also perfect for a play like this. The cinematography, especially when you consider the limited space at play, is spectacular, and the score is fine.
The best thing about Fences is the wonderful dialogue that comes fast and furious and always rings true, even when it sound almost like poetry. Fences is a sad and profound story about a man struggling with, and trying to make sense of, his past, his present and his future. Troy is not a very sympathetic character but it’s possible to identify with him nonetheless because of Washington’s great performance and the brilliant writing.
I liked Fences much more than Moonlight (the other African-American film looking for awards this year and the favourite of critics) and it’s a guarantee that it will be in my top ten films of 2016 (coming next week). **** My mug is up.