Director Denzel Washington hits ‘Fences’ out of the ballpark

Denzel Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson in ‘Fences’

“You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.”- August Wilson

Fences began life as one of ten plays in the “Pittsburgh Cycle” (often called the Century Cycle) written by August Wilson.  Each of the plays is set in one decade in the 20th century with Fences set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh.

The movie begins on a Friday with “Troy Maxson” (Denzel Washington) and “Jim Bono” (Stephen McKinley Henderson) working on the garbage truck, collecting their pay and then walking to Troy’s home where they commence drinking from a pint of gin in his backyard.  Troy’s wife “Rose” (Viola Davis) joins in the conversation.  There is concern because Troy had complained about the fact that none of the “coloreds” working on the garbage trucks are allowed to be promoted to the position of driver.  He has been summoned to the commissioner’s office the following week and both Rose and Jim are worried he will be fired.

Jovan Adepo and Denzel Washington in ‘Fences’

“Lyons” (Russell Hornsby) who is Troy’s son by his first wife stops by looking to borrow money.  This bothers Troy as does the news that his other son “Cory” (Jovan Adepo) is being recruited to play football for a college team.  Troy, who played baseball in the Negro leagues after finishing a 15 year stretch in prison, is bitter that he never got a chance to play in the major leagues.  This has him convinced that there is no future in football for Cory and he wants his younger son to focus on school and his job at the local A and P.

Money is tight in the Maxson home because Troy’s brother “Gabe” (Mykelti Williamson) has moved out and is paying rent to a neighbor to live in her house.  Gabe was badly hurt fighting during World War II and has a plate in his skull.  The money paid to Gabe by the government paid for the house the Maxsons live in.

Fences is primarily about Troy although both Rose and Cory have major story arcs within the film.  Troy is not a warm loving father and he makes it clear that he sees himself responsible for providing for Cory’s survival needs without having any duty to his emotional development.   Things change dramatically when Troy is forced to disclose his infidelity to Rose because his mistress has gotten pregnant.

Viola Davis in ‘Fences’

One could simply listen to a recitation of the amazing words of August Wilson and be far more entertained than by most dramatic films of this era.  To have actors of the caliber of this cast performing Wilson’s writing in a film that works very hard to be accurate in its visual presentation; is a treat for the eyes and ears. The fact that every member of the aforementioned cast save Jovan Adepo worked together in a 2010 Broadway revival of the play has definitely enhanced the movie version.

Denzel Washington is a rarity, a great actor whose performances are just as terrific when he is both behind and in front of the camera.  Viola Davis’ “Rose” is powerful and will hopefully be rewarded with appropriate consideration during award season.  One of the best films I’ve seen in 2016.

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