Fences is not an easy film to watch at times, at its centre is Denzel Washington shaking off his established screen persona to play a very flawed man but a human being none the less. He is Troy Maxson a garbage man in 1950s America raising a teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) with his lovely wife Rose (Viola Davis) in working class Pittsburgh. This is a man who holds centre stage in his house, he is the king of a court that usually numbers no more than four or five but it means a great deal to him. His best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) who he works with nods in agreement more often than not, Rose not always in agreement will let things slide as wives sometimes do, his son from a previous relationship Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory exist as challenges to his authority to be shut down at all costs and then there is his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) damaged by the war who is the only one he can’t control.
For Troy no achievement is good enough, he’s 53 years old and the windows of opportunity are closing. After a wild youth he’s chosen being a responsible patriarch and he wants to ingrain into his sons that sense of responsibility but this maybe because he secretly envies their possible futures. Troy makes a decision that a lot of men make when faced with a mid-life crisis, this small court of admirers is no longer enough and like all men responsibility has made him forget that his burden as a patriarch is also his privilege. The consequences for his family will flow down through the years.
Viola Davis in her award acceptance speeches throughout this season has said that playwright August Wilson with Fences gave voice to the African American working class of the last century who kept the country running and allowed their children to finally gain college educations and with it opportunities. Everybody wants to know their life matters and for swathes of men and women who never got their names in history books August Wilson’s play is a tribute that powerfully tells their ghosts “Yes you mattered.” Yet it might be important to remember that not all of them were this deeply flawed and resentful as Troy. My own grandfather was a welder, he didn’t cheat on his wife he took care of her when she suffered a stroke at the age of 36 and he didn’t resent his children succeeding he encouraged it. I don’t know if he regretted any decisions, if he rued any missed opportunities or was haunted by any unfulfilled dreams. Because he never spoke of them but Troy Maxson speaks of them a lot.
Denzel Washington is arguably the greatest living actor of his generation, a man who has played many different characters, action roles for Tony Scott, punk runaway slaves in Glory, a variety of roles for director Spike Lee including Malcolm X but you may never have seen him like this. He’s not cool here. He’s lively, gruff and even a little old and worn out. As an actor lacking any vanity he gradually strips away Troy’s dignity. We see the hypocrisy of his actions, the pain in his outbursts and the fragility in his powerful but out of shape physique. This is Denzel as you’ve never seen him before, so effectively does he embody the spirit and life of a man like Maxson. A man who in one instant can beat himself up about owing owning a house to his brother, and then in the next lecture his son about how saving to afford repairs on the house is a man’s responsibility. Yet look at the small exchanges, the expressions on his face in moments where he does not speak. This man was capable of love even if not how to express or value it properly.
Mykelti Williamson starring as Gabriel Maxson who received a head injury in the Pacific and now acts erratic also gives a great performance. This is a time where understanding of what he was struggling with would have been limited and the burden of taking care of him would have been substantial. Williamson brings real pathos to the role but anybody who has been around those with mental disability, mental health or autism will tell you such people often take your breath away with insightful and timely words. Not to mention they often bring forth the better angels of our nature. Jovan and Russell play their roles effectively, we see they only want to earn their father’s love and respect while they are growing weary of their treatment at his hands. Henderson’s turn as Bono will be less celebrated because it’s all in subtle choices playing in the background while other people are saying their lines but he does have two stand-out scenes with Washington where the nature of their friendship take a turn.
For all the accolades Washington should receive, Viola Davis may give the best performance in the film. Viola Davis as Rose is a buttress of support not just to her husband but to her family and to her community (we see her leaving for Church with food in one scene.) Women like her endured much to hold whole towns together with their stalwart love and bottomless depths of forgiveness. In the film’s most powerful moment she lays bare the limits and hopes for housewives of that era and it is beautiful and devastating. If the character of Troy is hard to sympathise with, the film should be seen for Davis’s moment alone.
Denzel Washington as director is happy to stage the film as naturally as possibly, we leave the house for bits but we can see clearly this story was once told as a stage play. No showy flourishes are made with the camera but close ups are played for maximum effect. We see the hill, we see the house – the front and back and inside, we feel intrinsically what it was like to grow up in it and the world that is hinted at outside. It’s a strong straightforward telling of the story for the camera, this remains first and foremost a tale told through performances.
As the film goes on Maxson inhabits scenes he‘s not even in, after watching him with his family throughout we grow to feel some of their emotions. As he winds up for another lecture we shake our heads at the repetition and the lack of self-awareness and yet when he’s gone we feel the lack of his presence as keenly as the family does. We understand perhaps that for better or worse we are who are fathers made us and whether they did us proud or said they loved us we want to make them proud and we do love them.