“Fences,” August Wilson’s heartfelt, rough-hewn play about a working-class black family in postwar Pittsburgh, had its debut in 1983 but feels exceptionally relevant today. Its themes of financial struggle, imperiled masculinity and the elusive American dream have the potential to speak to all colors in the wake of a racially polarizing presidential election. The film version of “Fences,” directed by and starring Denzel Washington, arrives in theaters with excellent timing.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a once-promising baseball player who aged out of the game by the time the major leagues began admitting blacks. He was too early, says his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), but facts aren’t easy for Troy to face. “There ought never have been a time called too early,” he says. Now in his 50s, Troy is a garbage collector. He proudly calls himself a good provider, though he seems bitter about it, too.
Troy is a fearsome and complicated father figure, as tyrannical as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and as pitiable as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” He wrote off his first son, Lyons (an excellent Russell Hornsby), the minute he left home, but Troy’s athletically gifted younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), remains under his thumb. For Troy, a man’s home is his castle, even if it’s a modest row house with a backyard fence that never seems to get built.
“Fences” is an actors’ showcase, which is both its strength and weakness. Washington is magnificent as Troy, especially as he grows older and his poor choices take their emotional toll. Equally fine are Davis, as the family’s long-suffering rock, and Stephen Henderson as Bono, Troy’s loyal and much wiser friend. A final meeting between the two men, after Troy has damaged his family beyond repair, is easily the film’s most poignant scene.
Even so, “Fences” feels more about performances than about deeper themes. Though shot in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the film can’t quite escape the unseen limits of a three-walled stage, which makes this story seem specific rather than universal. In the end, “Fences” is a finely crafted drama, if not the cry from the heart that Wilson intended.
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby.
Director: Denzel Washington.
Running time: 2:18.
Rated: PG-13, for language and some sexual themes.