Fences ***1/2

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis shine in this terrific adaptation of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Troy Maxson is a flawed man, and he knows it. He’s a garbage collector in his mid-50s who looks back on his life and doesn’t like what he sees, and knows he doesn’t have much of a future. Still, he provides for his family, and is proud to do so. But the bitterness of his baseball career being derailed because of racism eats away at him, and here in 1950s Pittsburgh, there’s little that makes it better.

One of the great things about “Fences,” actor/director Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the August Wilson play, is that Troy (Washington) is just as right about his life and society as he is wrong. In some ways this allows him to protect his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), but in other ways it makes him pigheaded and stubborn. Troy’s friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) calls out some of his inconsistencies and tall tales, but Bono also knows Troy needs the bravado and lets him have it.

Two supporting characters tell us a lot about Troy based on the way he treats them. One is Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s son from an earlier marriage. An aspiring musician unwilling to take a menial job like his dad, Lyons regularly stops by the house on his father’s payday to borrow money. Troy likes to say no, and implores his son to do whatever work he has to do to provide for his family. Lyons adamantly doesn’t want Troy’s life, believes in his music, and is determined to succeed in his own way.

The other supporting character of note is Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s brother. Gabe is a World War II veteran who suffered a head injury that rendered him mentally unstable; he received government money for his disability, but Troy took that money and bought a house. Troy is still good to Gabe, who lives nearby, but the reality that the roof over Troy’s head would not have been possible without Gabe’s hardship is a brutal cross to bear. Troy, we can then conclude, is an opportunist who sees the world a specific way, and those who dare to disagree he discards. His own morality, however, is questionable at best.

Sometimes it’s awesome to watch great actors perform great writing. “Fences” is one of those times, even if parts of the late Wilson’s adaptation of his own work feel overwritten. Washington and Davis are shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, as each finds the heart and essence of his/her character and renders it with steady assurance. Washington slips into Troy’s larger-than-life personality with conviction, deftly shifting tone and mood as needed to reveal the many facets of Troy’s personality. Because Rose is overshadowed by Troy one could easily miss Davis’ nuanced performance, but that would be sinful. Davis is strong, sturdy and vulnerable as Rose, a woman who fully invested in Troy and painfully realizes she’s come away with mixed results. When she gets emotional, which doesn’t happen often, we feel it. And it hurts.

“Fences” is a movie that sticks with you long after you see it. The Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Play after it debuted in 1987, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s easy to see why. This is a powerful story with dilemmas that feel agonizingly real. If Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman” is the quintessential “Great American Play” for White America, “Fences” holds that distinction for the African-American experience, and this film adaptation more than does it justice.

Did you know?
Washington and Davis won Tony Awards for their performances in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences”; that production also won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

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