Bringing August Wilson's play to the screen

Fences
Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by August Wilson
139 minutes, rated PG
4 stars

It’s hard to be a hero all the time. Where black actors were once offered only humiliating stereotypes, from eye-rolling mammies to train conductors, the modern black star has a different problem: to be an angel or a devil – that is to say, a role model or an outlaw badass. Denzel Washington can do both but he’s more often on the side of the angels, even if packing heat. You can count his real villains on one hand; for the heroes, you need both feet.

He’s not as upright as pioneers like Sidney Poitier, but he looks for roles in which power and moral authority go hand-in-hand – as in Crimson Tide or The Great Debaters – one of only two features he has directed before this (Antwone Fisher was the other). Even his hard man roles usually have a high moral reason for him to shoot people – as in The Equalizer and Man on Fire, where he was protecting a child. When he does play a proper villain, as in American Gangster or Training Day, he often plays against his own image, with great results.

That may be why he’s very good in Fences, playing Troy Maxson, a man in whom God and the devil battle for supremacy. Troy pitches garbage cans for the city of Pittsburgh, riding the trucks with his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). When we meet them, at the end of a shift, it’s Friday afternoon, the one day of the week Troy allows himself to take a drink and get rowdy in his tiny backyard. With a decent nip of gin on board, Troy is an orator, a romantic, a philosopher and a lover towards his devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis). He has a story for all occasions, jokes a’plenty and remnants of the charmer she fell for 18 years earlier. Only his sons, Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby) bring out a harder edge. Towards his younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), made imbecile by a head wound during the war, Troy is both protective and guilt-ridden.

The late August Wilson wrote Fences in the early 1980’s, the sixth of ten plays about black American lives, all but one set in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. Each takes place in a different decade of the 20th century; two have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (Fences in 1987, The Piano Lesson in 1990). James Earl Jones played Troy in the first Broadway production, with Mary Alice as Rose. Washington and Viola Davis revived the play in 2010, which is how we get to this film version, six years later.

There’s no escaping that this is a filmed play, but so what? It’s a great play and full marks to Washington for daring to think the spoken word is not dead in movies. Most of it takes place in that humble backyard, with a couple of scenes on the street outside. Washington could have broadened it but the play is about the idea of home – its sanctity, its limits, its responsibilities.

Fences is set in the 1950s, as 53-year-old Troy ponders the opportunities denied him by ‘the white man’. He was a star baseballer in his youth but segregation confined him to the Negro leagues. Now Cory wants to take a football scholarship and Troy blocks him, saying he’ll suffer the same discrimination. Troy is rigid about rules and standards – at least for the rest of his family. He’s a towering presence, but only at home – the trash man who’s a tyrant in his own castle. In the second act, it becomes the story of Rose as well – a woman who has done nothing but love him. When she learns the truth, her world comes tumbling down.

Washington does a good job shortening and sharpening the play. Every performance is honed, with Viola Davis magnificent as the emotional well from which they all draw strength. When Denzel the star allows us to see the cracks in his persona, as here, he becomes a more interesting actor. Stardom makes actors timid. This shows him doing the opposite, and there is more to come. He has signed a deal with HBO to shepherd the remaining nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle to film.