FENCES movie poster | ©2016 Paramount Pictures

FENCES movie poster | ©2016 Paramount Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Writer: August Wilson, based on his play
Director: Denzel Washington
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: December 16, 2016

When the late August Wilson’s play FENCES opened on Broadway in 1987, it proceeded to win Tony Awards for pretty much everything – Best Play, Best Actor (James Earl Jones), Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice) and Best Direction (Lloyd Richards). The 2010 revival proceeded to win Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor for Denzel Washington and Best Actress (upgraded from Featured) for Viola Davis.

Now Washington has taken the directing reins for a feature film FENCES, reprising his role of 1950s Pittsburgh garbage collector Troy Maxson and bringing most of his Broadway acting colleagues with him. Davis again stars as Troy’s second wife Rose, with Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s old friend Bono, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy’s son from an earlier relationship, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-injured brother Gabe. The one major cast change/addition is Jovan Adepo as Cory, Troy and Rose’s teenaged son.

When we first meet Troy and Bono, it seems like FENCES is going to be tackling the subject of race relations. Troy and Bono work the back of the garbage truck. Troy has just protested the fact that all of the truck drivers are white; the grunt work falls to black men.

This is a plot point, and racism is a fact of life in Troy’s world. However, FENCES is primarily concerned with the relationship between Troy and Rose, and Troy and Cory. These bonds and battles are in turn informed by Troy and Rose’s interplay with the other characters.

First, it must be said that Davis gives a monumental performance as Rose. It doesn’t matter that the issues she faces are not new to fiction. They’re not new to life, either, and Davis convinces us they are happening to her right in front of us. Davis makes us care so much about what is happening to this person moment by moment that we feel like we’re experiencing Rose’s reactions in whole new ways.

Washington gives a very thorough performance, and Troy also seems like a real person, but when other characters talk about him, the Troy they describe and the Troy we see are two different beings. Troy is advertised as being “big,” not in the physical sense, but as someone who fills up a room with his spirit, whether boisterous or raging. Washington’s Troy is canny, resentful, proud, but not notably expansive. He never fully lets his guard down, and he’s not con artist enough to fool the other characters into ever imagining that he is. Again, perfectly realistic, just not what we’re told about him. It may be that Washington wants to make the point that people’s recollections don’t always agree with the facts, and fair enough.

Another key aspect of FENCES is the combative father/son relationship between Troy and Cory. Once more, this is lifelike as it plays out, with Adepo persuasively going from hurt incredulity to anger to defiance. We are both shown and told that Troy is trying mightily to be a better husband and father than his own parent was, to be a responsible man. However, we are continually informed in the dialogue that Cory desperately wants his father’s approval, and this doesn’t make its way to the screen. Cory’s aspirations are so sensible in their own right, and Adepo’s interpretation is so straightforward, that feel his frustration at being blocked, but not his desperation to be seen.

As director, Washington doesn’t open up the script much. We get a couple of scenes on the streets with the truck, and go to a church and a bar, but mostly we’re in the Maxson backyard and home. He makes potent use of close-ups, but also knows when to leave space around the actors, so that the emotions have room to breathe.

Parents of small children should note that, although there is no nudity and relatively little violence, this is drama with mature themes in the most literal sense of “mature.” Also, the N-word is used frequently (historically accurate for the characters given the era, but parents should be aware).

FENCES is a powerful piece of work, and Washington channels that power mostly effectively. Viewers may (or may not) have questions about some of the interpretation, but we come out moved all the same.

Related: Movie Review: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

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