by Philip Price
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) really just wants to matter. He wants to hold influence in an area that means something to him-that matters to him-and as he feels cheated out of such significance when it comes to professional baseball it seems his only way to relieve this need is to fence in all that is his domain and rule over it with an iron fist. Of course, what Troy doesn't realize or simply doesn't care to acknowledge is that he is poisoning that of which he draws his biggest sources of admiration. Whether it be in Rose (Viola Davis), his loyal wife, or their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who only aspires to impress and be like his father, but whom Troy cannot help but to hold back. Troy is a deeply flawed man; one who epitomizes passing the sins of the father to those of the following generations. What Troy experiences are more the effects of the sins of the father-some of which Troy couldn't help, original sin if you will, as he is simply a victim of circumstance who can't forgive the world for as much. One might say it was just as much Troy's choices within these circumstances that set him on the path in which he ends up, but there is certainly a right to some of his anger and resentment. It's where he unfolds that anger and resentment that we see his flaws. It is in the unraveling of who Maxson is and how the dynamics of his relationships with each member of his family inform this portrait of black culture in the 1950s that takes up much of the substance in Washington's third directorial effort. Adapted from a stage play by August Wilson, who also wrote the screenplay before his death in 2005, in which both Washington and co-star Davis starred in a revival of not five years ago “Fences,” the movie, in many ways feels like something of a safe bet for Washington to try his hand at next. It certainly meets the credentials of an awards contender and the material alone has already proven critic-proof and so what is there to do with such a property that might inspire new audiences to discover? Turns out Washington doesn't seem to feel the need to change or adapt too much at all as this feature version of Wilson's most popular play still very much feels like a play. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the fact Washington's directing still feels timid more so than it doesn't serve the material well. The dialogue can certainly stand on its own and when it has actors such as our two aforementioned leads delivering it it's hard to go wrong, but just because something is obviously of a high quality doesn't also automatically render it infinitely effective either.
It is important to understand that “Fences” is a cultural story that means to break down the barriers of culture. Meaning that by painting a portrait of middle to lower class African-American life in the fifties Wilson could inexplicably fill his story with details and caveats particular to black culture while displaying in the broad strokes that we all deal with many of the same issues and struggles in our everyday lives. Granted, life for black people in the fifties was obviously much more difficult and much more challenging than it was for white people, but the point remains the same and still resonates today. At the onset of the narrative we are introduced to Maxson and friend/co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) who work together as garbage men; loading the trucks despite both men being older than the Caucasian driving the truck. Maxson has already created a stir, petitioning to get the promotion to driver himself through his union though that will seemingly still pale in comparison when his original dreams consisted of playing major league baseball. Of course, Troy's days of playing baseball came long before the days of Jackie Robinson when there was little to no hope his talent would ever pay off. This is the reason Maxson consistently denies Cory any acceptance or leniency when it comes to his aspiring football career. There might be a real shot for Cory considering a scout is coming to watch him play and wants to meet his mother and father, but even in the face of the changing world Maxson can't accept that he simply came along too early. This idea, this extension of being born into unjust circumstance rears its head in any scenario Maxson seems to encounter and he uses it as such-so much so that it becomes more of an excuse than an unavoidable fact. Davis' Rose is and seems to have always been all that a wife should be and yet their marriage has reached a point in which Rose more tolerates her husband than enjoys his company while Maxson feels the need to inform Bono on a regular basis that he attracts the attention of much younger women down at their drinking spot. All of this in an effort to convince himself that he matters more than he actually ever will. It's not that Maxson isn't aware of his actions or how they inevitably make him a more feared than respected figure, but he has to talk a big game in order to continue to exude that confidence despite he and everyone around him being aware of the fact it is just that: talk.
Speaking of talking, there is a lot of it in “Fences” and if you aren't ready to sit in attention and field both a large amount of baseball metaphors and/or philosophical meanderings then alter your expectations. As stated, “Fences” comes from a stage play and though this is indeed a more cinematic version of that same story the source format is still very evident in Washington's film. While the world of 1950s Pittsburgh is more fleshed out here than it could ever be on stage due simply to the practical limitations of theater it is in terms of interpreting the dialogue for film that Washington plays it safe. Rather than necessarily taking advantage of what can be accomplished on film that is impossible on stage this film version plays it right down the middle. On stage, everything must be stated-emotions that might otherwise be conveyed with a look or expression have to be put into words and rather than seeming to substitute some of the mountains of dialogue for these advantages the camera can offer Washington keeps the actors rather stationary and the action remaining mostly in the back yard of the Maxson's house where Troy is both literally and figuratively building a fence around what he can claim as his own. Of course, Washington has always been something of a practical director as his two previous efforts behind the camera, “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters,” are both stories dealing in race relations in ways that certain events lead to bigger discussions whereas Fences takes a more direct approach in that it's the constant discussions that lead to and determine how events play out. It isn't that Maxson is conflicted about being over 50 and only able to put a roof over his and his family's heads due to the fact his younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson in a solid turn), was shot in the head during the war, had to have a metal plate put on his skull, and hasn't been the same since resulting in a payment from the government that allowed Maxson to afford that roof, but more that Maxson isn't able to own that responsibility he owes his family despite the fact he's been working hard enough to do so for eighteen plus years. This responsibility that Maxson knows he owes to Rose, to Cory, to Gabriel, and to older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is something that is harped upon by our leading anti-hero time and time again, but rather than illustrate this through actions Washington simply keeps the camera trained on himself and his co-stars as they spout monologues that admittedly illustrate such ideas with a certain level of effectiveness. Given what a more intuitive hand behind the camera might have done with this material Fences, the movie, simply doesn't feel as moving or compelling as it could have.
In the end though, it becomes harder and harder to feel any type of sympathy for Troy Maxson as he ultimately isn't even a big enough man to honor the most respectable aspect of his life. That, of course, being Rose who after more than eighteen years of marriage and an unflinching loyalty is told everything she's given her husband still wasn't good enough. Holding a higher standard for others than he does himself Maxson doesn't even seem to realize others have wants and needs of their own. He is so wrapped up in his own failures that he doesn't realize Rose has been building a resentment for years as she's been stuck right along with him. Of course, as any rational person might have done under such circumstances-meaning in those times Rose didn't have much of a choice-she invested those wants and needs in her husband leading Maxson to not only disappoint himself, but all those that were willing and strong enough to love him. It is this sometimes befuddling, but always present bond between Troy and Rose that gives way to Fences most affecting moments. Watching the likes of Washington and Davis act the shit out of this material is reason enough to buy a ticket even if the culmination of their insightful and intelligently written dialogue doesn't leave us as shaken as Wilson might have imagined. Washington, as one might expect, is as commanding a presence as ever and he exudes this effort by Troy to project such a big presence that he leaves little room for anyone else and certainly not their ambitions or desires to be a part of his world. On the other side of the partnership Davis delivers lines with such impeccable timing and phrasing that the pain behind her eyes feels physically cutting. She embodies this regret that fills the entirety of her frame when learning that this man who has forced her to bend her life completely in favor of his has had the nerve to betray her. The performances across the board are generally great as this is a movie full of them-Adepo obviously standing out among the supporters given he holds his own when going toe to toe with Washington. In terms of movie making though, “Fences” boils tensions and anxieties for nearly an hour and a half before the whistle finally sounds and we get a respite from the onslaught of dialogue. Time passes, strides are made, but wounds don't necessarily heal and with an hour left to go it seems “Fences” is destined to kind of fizzle out, but in its final half hour Washington's third directorial effort proves it can finish as strong as it began with the inherently powerful material being enough to overcome the otherwise standard execution.