August Wilson’s 1983 play, “Fences,” earned the author a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987 and it won a Tony Award for Best Play the same year. In other words, this is a superbly written story of a Pittsburgh family dealing with financial and social struggles in the late 1950s.
With that kind of literary pedigree, the only thing Denzel Washington had to do as the director of the big screen adaptation was to make sure he didn’t get in the way of Wilson’s heart-gripping words telling this compelling family story. The film version could have splintered despite the award-winning writing had Washington stumbled in his setting for the tale or in the casting.
Washington doesn’t fall into either trap by making the film look as much like a stage production as possible and by putting together one of the finest ensemble casts of the past decade. The standout writing, direction and performance makes “Fences” one of the 10 best movies of the year.
It would have been easy for Washington to run into trouble as he’s not only the director but plays the central figure of Troy. Either job comes with enough demands on their own but together it takes a Herculean effort to make both work so beautifully.
Washington plays Tory, the patriarch of the family whose brush with greatness in the past has left him angry at his present condition. He accuses the garbage company where he works of racial bias. At home, he’s a stern taskmaster who believes that inside the fences that surround his home, he’s the only voice that matters.
Rose (Viola Davis), his wife, tries her best to be peacemaker when it comes to the way Troy deals with his sons and brother. It’s a task that eventually overwhelms her.
In one of the strongest performances of his career, Washington finds all of the elements of Troy that Wilson wrote into the character. Troy’s a man of strength when it comes to standing up for what he thinks is right. Washington also plays him with a touch of fear and sadness that manifests itself in an alpha male approach to the world.
The emotional elements are magnified by the magnificent performance by Davis. It would have been easy to be overshadowed by Washington but Davis is equally as compelling and masterful playing her role.
The same can be said of the entire cast. Mykelti Williamson has the task of playing Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was left with mental problems after the war. This is the kind of role that could be played so far over the top it becomes farce by Williamson finds the right level so that in many ways Gabriel becomes the reverse reflection of Troy.
Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo round out the quality performances as Troy’s sons. Both actors play their roles with the kind of inner strength a son would need to survive a father whose idea of showing love is to refrain from a backhand slap. They also play the emotional desperation of sons trying to find a way to impress a father who believes only in tough love.
Washington’s decision to stage the film like a theater production makes the acting work even better. There’s no need for countless sets, wardrobe changes and relentless camera movement when the story and actors are so compelling.
The way the film version of “Fences” is acted and stage pays tribute to the literary strength of the original work. Washington’s work as director and actor along with the amazing cast delivers Wilson’s story in a proper and impressive style.