I had never heard of this play prior to watching the trailer for the movie nor had I ever heard of the late playwright, August Wilson. After watching the trailer, I knew I wanted to see this movie because Denzel Washington stars in and directs it. Even the snippet I saw in the clip was enough to convince me that this film would be excellent. What I didn’t know was that I would walk out of the screening wanting to find a way to see all the rest of August Wilson’s plays because this story is powerful, profound and real.
The movie begins with sound, the sound of trucks driving and men talking. This is appropriate as the main character, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a man who likes to tell stories. As his friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) says, ‘You have more stories than the Devil has sinners.’ Troy is bold and dynamic, even as he lifts garbage barrels over his head and dumps them into the trucks with Bono by his side. It is 1957 and Troy has challenged his union asking them why there are no black drivers. His jovial nature is quickly apparent as he jokes with Bono about their work. He is unconcerned that the commissioner of the union wants to see him the next week. But there is more below the surface that we learn as we follow him to his home.
We meet his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). We see affection and love shown between the two as he picks her up and embraces her. But we also learn that his stories may be only that, stories that he elaborates every time he tells them. Rose corrects him with the true version of events, such as when he was courting her. He relates that she told him ‘if you ain’t the marrying kind, move out the way so the marrying kind can find me.’ He claims he waited two or three days to ask her to marry him but she is clear, he came back that very day. This sets the stage for much of the rest of the film.
His son Lyons joins them (Troy’s son prior to his marriage to Rose) to ask his father for a loan. Troy disparages and we see hints of his stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to his son or Rose. We also learn that Rose and Troy have a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who loves football but due to his own past as an ex-baseball player, Troy doesn’t believe his son can make it, even though a college recruiter wants Troy to sign papers so Cory can play. We meet Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) an ex-soldier who was wounded in the war and due to his injuries now has psychological damage. As each person interacts with Troy, we are shown both his dynamic, charismatic character as well as the depths of his resentment and bitterness over his inability to play baseball in the Major Leagues.
The dialogue is one of the most beautiful elements of the film. The dialogue is one of the reasons I loved this movie and that writing is such a vivid part of the story. Dialogue drives the story forward, allowing us to learn more about Troy. When he was fourteen, he fought with his father, a man he calls the devil and left home. He came to the city where he met Lyons’ mother while living on the streets but ended up in prison. There, he learns how to play baseball. After he is released, he meets Rose and begins playing in the Negro Leagues. He cites race as a reason he doesn’t have the opportunity to get into the Majors but it is hinted that the real reason was his age. He was in his forties before he began playing. We are also learn that Gabriel’s disability money paid for the house that Troy owns and is another source of friction for him. Gabe has recently moved out in order to have his own space and asks Troy frequently if he is mad at him.
This movie is rife with metaphors and various themes. One motif in the movie is the conflict between Cory and his father which is the age old struggle of a son to emerge from the shadow of his father and find a way to be his own man. Over the course of the movie, this is explored between Troy and Cory, as they fight over Cory’s desire to play football. Troy doesn’t believe Cory can be successful playing football. Cory accuses him of jealousy and there is a ring of truth in those words. Troy is bitter over his lost opportunity and you can see this as he ruins Cory’s chance with the college recruiter by telling Cory’s coach he can’t play, not wanting his son to end up like him. This increases the heat between the two. Eventually, matters do come to a boiling point as Cory and Troy fight physically before Cory leaves for good.
Another theme is Troy’s battle with death as age presses in on him. The fence becomes part of this struggle as a way to keep death at bay. The fence is a metaphor for Troy’s walls as well, as he struggles to find a way past to express himself emotionally to his family.
For Rose, the fence is a way to keep her family close to her. As she explains to Cory at the end of the movie, she gave so much of herself to Troy when they married that she forgot to leave space for herself within their marriage. To me, the fence is her attempt to find some space, to find a voice in an era that didn’t allow many women a voice. As the story progresses, we discover a darkness to Troy. He is not faithful and deals a blow to Rose that leaves her stunned and shaken. This moment allows her to truly shine as she deals with the fallout that Troy leaves in his wake.
The story delves into the way Troy interacts with his family, the many ways in which he is both a good man, holding to his responsibilities, striving to make a better life for his family and the ways in which he fails along the way, as he speaks in baseball comparisons saying that he’s had three strikes. It explores how race impacts his place in the world and allows him to become the first black driver because he speaks out. The shape of who he is impacts everyone around him, leaving a profound effect on his family and friends. But at the end, it is shown that he has done as well as he can with what he was given from his parents, trying to instill the best in his children and hope that the worst would be left behind. There is a balance in the story that is shown in a song that Troy learned from his father and sings to his children. They in turn sing the same song at the end of the movie
Denzel has done a masterful job both in his performance and as a director. As a director, he has managed to keep the scenery to the minimum necessary to portray the story while bringing in subtle film elements such as camera shots of the neighborhood and vignettes of each character as time passes. His acting is charismatic; he becomes his character. But it is Viola Davis who stood out the most for me. She resonates in her role, a subtle and elegant presence on screen, bringing a female perspective to both the era of the movie and a foil to Denzel’s much louder character. As the story develops, her actions root the story and keep us grounded. It is her that we respect. When she finds her voice with Troy, the women in the audience cheered.
To be fair, all of the actors in this movie were exceptional, using subtle body language and expressions to build hints to the story and the nature of Troy. This is a powerful story with rich nuances even in the darker moments and the actors are to thank for expressing those deeper emotions so well. It is one of the most real stories I have ever seen. It has universal themes that anyone can connect to and the characters are incredibly engaging. If you are looking for an action movie, this might not be the one for you but if you’re looking for a thoughtful movie exploring the relationship between a man and his family, I would recommend you see this film. I would love to see more movies with the depth of this film.
Rating: 5 stars
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career, but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players. He tries to be a good husband and father, but his lost dream of glory eats at him, and causes him to make a decision that threatens to tear his family apart.
Fences is directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson, adapted from Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney
Directed By: Denzel Washington
Written By: August Wilson