When you watch a movie set in the past through the prism of living in the modern world, it can be difficult to relate. The settings, the interactions, and the societal norms can seem as foreign as the moon. But the closer you look, the easier it is to understand the world, especially when you have a master storyteller leading the way.
August Wilson’s Fences, which premiered on Broadway in 1987, has finally been made into a movie almost 30 years later, but the power of his words have not diminished one iota. Directed by Denzel Washington, it tells the story of Troy (played by Washington), a 53-year-old sanitation worker in 1953 Pittsburgh, along with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and others.
The circumstances of Troy’s life — baseball dreams gone unrealized, a stint in prison, a low-level job — have made him into a hard man. He has his soft spots, most notably for his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered a brain injury as a soldier. But he stands his ground in most instances, such as when Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son from a previous relationship, comes asking for money, or when Cory wants to pursue football instead of working at the local store.
Troy’s views are influenced by his experience as an African-American in the early 20th century, and racial politics hang over the entire story, despite the fact that it doesn’t feature a single white character with a speaking role. His actions and reactions can be viewed as abhorrent from one perspective, but completely understandable from another, making him a supremely complex person.
Wilson, who died in 2005, is credited with the screenplay, so it’s clear that Washington has changed very little, if anything, from the original play script. That is obvious from the get-go, as Troy is allowed to go on long monologues, a torrent of words that allow us to comprehend his worldview but, at least initially, prevents true dialogue.
But as the film goes along, other characters emerge, thanks to the uniformly great acting and simple yet effective staging. The story takes place almost entirely at Troy and Rose’s house, with the majority of scenes occurring in the backyard, where Troy is attempting to build a fence. Although the limited locations give the film a stagy feel, they also give it a focus on the words the characters are saying, which is of the utmost importance.
Washington and Davis, who both won Tony Awards for the same roles in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences, show no reason why they shouldn’t receive similar acclaim here. Their skills at making both the big and the small moments resonate are unparalleled, and every ounce of their emotion is felt deeply.
The supporting cast is every bit their equal. Williamson, Adepo, Hornsby, and Stephen Henderson as Troy’s best friend, Bono, give a depth to the film that wouldn’t be there without their performances.
Fences is one of those pieces of art that will always be timeless, no matter how tied to a specific time period it is. Washington has done Wilson, himself, and countless others proud with his faithful yet transcendent adaptation.