Washington and Davis Show Their Range in Wilson’s Play


Fences (2016) PosterPittsburgh, 1950s. Troy Maxson arrives home from work with his friend Bono. His wife, Rose, is setting the table for dinner. His grown son Lyons arrives for a visit, and his son Cory will come home after football practice. This weekend, he plans to build a fence in the backyard with Cory, and he’ll probably catch up with his brother Gabriel.

On first introduction in Fences, Troy’s (Denzel Washington) life seems figured out, his family idyllic even. The roof may need fixing from time to time, but he seems to live more or less in the decade’s idealized row of similar houses. But the cracks begin showing soon: He can’t move up from garbage collector to truck driver because of his skin color, he clashes with both of his sons, and Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) knows Troy is keeping a secret from Rose (Viola Davis). Most of all, he still thinks about his missed chance at a baseball career 18 years ago. Troy harbors a quiet but deep dissatisfaction with his life, and it’s changing his perspective.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the living definitions of powerhouses, and here they show their ranges of joy, heartbreak, aching, and vulnerability.

Fences, written by August Wilson and published in the 1980s, comes with a reputation. (Any play that has won both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play would.) I confess I have yet to see a production and have only read a portion of the play, but as a regular theatergoer, I can’t imagine any lover of the original work leaving this movie disappointed. Wilson adapts his own work for the screen, and director Washington’s love for this story shows. Because this production is attempting to find a balance between respecting the play and working as a film, it takes a bit to get situated in this world. People in the real world don’t talk in monologues like characters in plays do, so Troy’s frequent, uninterrupted storytelling feels scripted at first. After 20 minutes or so, though, we’ve arrived. We’re not surprised anymore by lengthy speeches or how long we’ve stayed in one setting, so we can just absorb the drama unfolding before us.

Jovan Adepo and Denzel Washington in Fences (2016)

And it’s rich drama, though not all credit can go to the writing. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the living definitions of powerhouses, and here they show their ranges of joy, heartbreak, aching, and vulnerability. The two command their too-many-to-count monologues, transforming theatrics into human drama. They bring faces to everyday struggles and to lost dreams. Supporting players Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson are up to the challenge of acting opposite them, and Adepo especially stands out as stifled son Cory. (Washington, Davis, Henderson, Hornsby, and Williamson are all returning to roles they played in a Broadway revival of Fences that opened in 2010. Washington and Davis each won Tony Awards for their roles, and Henderson earned a nomination.)

Troy and Rose sort through issues of race, class, gender, parenting, marriage, and responsibility that feel just as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. And for a rather long film of talking start to finish, the subtle plotting still surprises. Most importantly, Fences feels like real people facing real problems.