“Fences” is about the things that keep us in, defining what is ours and what is not, boundaries set by ourselves and others. The Denzel Washington movie is based on American playwright August Wilson’s 1983 play that won a 1987 Pulitzer and Tony (Best Play).
James Earl Jones headed the original Broadway cast. Washington played the main character, Troy Maxson in the first revival of the play in 2010. Directed by Kenny Leon, the production was nominated for ten Tony Awards and one three: Best Revival, Best Actor (Washington) and Best Actress (Viola Davis).
Troy is a 53-year-old man working as a garbage barrel lifter. When he was younger, he was a talented baseball player, a skill he learned in prison after committing manslaughter during a robbery. Throughout the movie, he bitterly grumbles about the barrier of race that kept him out of Major League Baseball.
The house he owns was bought with disability money given to his brother Gabriel who was injured in the war. The head injury has caused him to be a simpleton, unable to understand time and place. Although the house was bought with Gabriel’s money, Gabriel has recently moved down the road, renting a room.
Troy, his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) still live there. As Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) return from work, Bono mentions that Troy has been flirting with a young woman. Troy deflects questions and the conversation centers on what’s been bothering Troy: Black men are always barrel lifters and not drivers on the garbage service. He’s determined to become a driver.
At home, Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) knows it’s payday and has come to borrow money. Troy doesn’t want to give him anything although Lyons promises to repay the money soon because his girlfriend Bonnie has a job. Rose intercedes and gives Troy the money.
Rose has a gentle heart, but like Troy she has also been crushed by the daily prejudice they face and the unfulfilled hopes and dreams. She understands Cory’s desire to play football, one that holds a possibility of a college scholarship, but Troy is to embittered by a lifetime of missed opportunities. The title refers to a backyard fence that Troy is building for Rose, one that Bono isn’t sure Troy will finish, but promises to buy his wife a refrigerator if Troy does. Imagine being Bono’s wife, waiting for another person’s husband to accomplish something that has no real bearing on one’s life.
For Troy, the fence symbolized keeping death from his doorway, but for Rose it was a matter of keeping what was hers safe.
As a director, Washington wisely chooses not to introduce us to Bono’s wife nor the woman to whom Troy is flirting with. They are nebulous characters, forcing us to focus on Troy and how his actions affect Rose. Troy’s midlife crisis is only illustrated from within the fenced in life of Rose and Troy, both wondering if they settled because of the things that were out of their reach although there’s doubt cast on the reality of Troy’s baseball aspirations.
The Denzel Washington we see in this movie, isn’t the splendidly defiant field slave who is ready to die for his freedom, glowering with pride before being whipped nor the fiercely defiant and intelligent Malcolm X. Washington’s Troy is a selfish man who might have played in the Negro Baseball League but doesn’t seem like a team player–not at work nor at home.
Davis’ Rose is a woman caught between her husband’s controlling ways and her son’s dreams. Those two loves should be so hard to reconcile but here the father’s love is soured. Neither of Troy’s sons love him, but they both respect and honor Rose.
“Fences” is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of nine plays or The August Wilson Century Cycle of ten plays–one for each decade all in the Pittsburgh Hill District except for one that is set in Chicago.
Wilson is credited with writing the screenplay although he died in 2005. The journey from Broadway stage to the silver screen was long because Wilson insisted that “Fences” have a black director. Washington is familiar with the play and his sensibilities give all the characters grace and conflicting impulses, except the unlucky Gabriel. Washington has given us a brick-and-mortar house, a home and a 1950s Pittsburgh where race is still an issue and America is just not so great.
One hopes that as black actors, producers and directors get more clout, more of Wilson’s works will become movies and the depth of his language will inform future generations of movie goers about the black experience in the United States.