Like being hit by lightning – that’s how I felt on Broadway watching Fences, the Pulitzer-prize-winning play by August Wilson. Now lightning strikes twice, this time in the film version that director-star Denzel Washington brings to the screen with flame-throwing ferocity and feeling. The film adaptation looks like a play, not a movie; the temptation to open it up and crowd it with camera tricks never occurs to Washington. Some may grumble about that – I say amen. Washington carves Fences out of his own heart and soul, in tribute to Wilson – who died in 2005 at 60 and receives sole screenplay credit – and in honor of a great, searing drama that stubbornly resists being sliced into small pieces and served to short attention spans. In bringing Wilson to the screen for the first time, the star does the playwright proud.
The movie of Fences doesn’t need Hollywood bells and whistles. This writer, this director and these actors are all the magnificence required to grab your attention and hold it. The time is 1957. The place is Pittsburgh, where Wilson set nine of the 10 plays in his “Century” cycle, each play occurring in a different decade and each meant to illuminate, in the writer’s words, “the poetry in the everyday language of black America.”
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbage collector with the chip of broken dreams on his shoulder. Having done jail time for murder (in self defense), he used his talent for baseball to make it into the Negro League. Later, Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier into the majors that our hero could not, and a bitterness lingers that results in Troy standing in the way of Cory (Jovan Adepo), his teen son who yearns to play college football. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older boy from a different mother, can’t even hit up his dad for 10 bucks without an explosion. The only one who can temper the man’s rage is Rose (Viola Davis), his wife of 18 years who steps cautiously around Troy’s triggers – including the fact that the modest brick house they live in was bought with disability money given to his younger brother, Gabriel (the excellent Mykelti Williamson), a veteran who returned from WWII psychologically damaged.
Troy finds relief from guilt and resentment by hanging out after Friday paydays with his friend and coworker, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, absolutely superb), both swilling gin and shooting the shit in the Maxson yard as Rose looks on with annoyance and affection. Troy gains power from the sound of his own voice and his mythic storytelling, at one point confronting the Grim Reaper, bat in hand: “Death ain’t nothin’ but a fastball on the outside corner.” But Rose is crushed by her husband’s affair with a local woman he impregnates. Their personal issues intersect with the social strictures, racial and economic, that the backyard fence that she wants Troy to build can’t keep out.
The power onscreen is undeniable, and the movie builds on the performances of Washington and Davis, who both won Tony awards for the roles in 2010 and who should soon have Oscar voters in equal awe. Davis plays Rose like a gathering storm; her final speech about who Rose is and what she stands for is a stunning feat. And Washington is monumental as a man trying to stand tall as the world and his own ego conspire to crush him. It’s impossible to remain unmoved when Troy tells Rose, “We go upstairs in that room at night, and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever.” That last image of Troy, his bat ready to swings at his demons, is indelible. It’s just one of the instances when the poetic force of Wilson’s language and the dazzling acting duet of Washington and Davis create a movie experience you won’t forget.