Director: Denzel Washington. Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Jovan Adepo. Cert 12A; 140mins
When August Wilson’s 1983 play Fences premiered on Broadway in 1987, just about everyone involved – including its two leads, James Earl Jones and Mary Alice – won Tony Awards. The feat was repeated for the 2010 revival, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davisin those parts.
Often perceived as a black dramatist’s rejoinder to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, this tale of a struggling family in 1950s Pittsburgh continues to be held up as one of the great African-American plays, with a main character – the wildly flawed Troy Maxson – who could teach even Willy Loman a thing or two about failure.
On film, with Washington on both sides of the camera, what we get is still very much the play: anyone allergic to Serious American Theatre may be well advised to steer clear. For its first half, at least, Fences is stagy, talky, demanding and slow. Washington, who has directed two strenuously worthy films in his time – Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) – is almost belligerently committed to doing the text justice, so much so that it’s Wilson who gets a posthumous screenplay credit (and Oscar nomination).
It’s not easy making a play this hefty fly compellingly on screen. One supporting character, though thankfully just the one, is flat-out bad, thanks to combined sins of clichéd writing and performance. (You’ll guess which.) There’s also a whole world of metaphor that belongs more naturally on stage – like the running stream of baseball parallels that Troy uses to communicate his woes.
Once a very promising Negro League slugger, he missed his chance to play in the Major Leagues, for which he blames pre-Civil-Rights-era racism, pure and simple. The truth, Wilson is willing to insinuate, may be more complex. On the cusp of alleged greatness, Troy went to prison for 15 years for manslaughter, leaving a son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a now-defunct relationship.
For the last 18 years, he has been shovelling complaints at his eternally tolerant wife Rose (Davis), and they’ve had their own son together, Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose ambitions in American football Troy bullyingly disparages, predicting that the white establishment will thwart his dreams, too.
Troy has become an aggrieved garbage collector, working with a best friend, Bono (excellent Wilson vet Stephen McKinley Henderson), whom he met in prison. Bono is the only one with an inkling about the news Troy has, which he has yet to divulge to Rose, and which brings the whole film to a screeching, traumatic halt midway: a case of drama procrastinated until it can’t wait any longer, and socked to us all the more powerfully as a result.
Sensational in her slow-burn bewilderment, Davis will win an Oscar here – the wrong Oscar, technically, but let’s not get too hung up about that. Troy has ten times more lines than Rose does, in the early scenes – he’s a ranter, a monologist, a boor (and frequently a bore). But the whole second half of the movie belongs to her, whether this self-mythologising husband likes it or not.