Playwright August Wilson refused to let Fences, his 1983-penned, Tony-Award-winning Broadway hit, be filmed unless it had an African-American director. This led to decades of waiting, near-success in the later ‘80s with Eddie Murphy in a supporting role, and Denzel Washington only agreeing to the top job several years after he starred in the 2010 on-stage revival with much of the film’s eventual cast (and won a Tony too).
It’s only his third feature as a director, and while he brings great charisma as a player he barely tries to make this material cinematic, resulting in long, theatrical, wordy and actory sequences which impress due to their thespian technique but also tend to go on and on and on.
In an underpopulated 1950s Pittsburgh of muted colours we’re introduced to waste collector Troy Maxson (Denzel) and his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), and they have a lengthy conversation that begins as they perch on the back of the truck and continues while they leave work, share some booze and sit in Troy’s backyard. He expresses his love for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and several important themes emerge. Troy nearly died of pneumonia as a kid (he wrestled with the Grim Reaper, he says, as death is discussed time and again), spent time in prison, never made it in baseball’s ‘Negro Leagues’ and more, and all this has led to one serious chip on his shoulder. While he pontificates about personal responsibility and morals, he’s also pretty damn self-righteous, and has a few secrets up his sleeve.
However, Troy has, he thinks, quite a lot to be bitter about: his older brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) sustained a head injury in World War II and now wanders the streets ranting about Judgment Day; would-be-jazz-muso Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his older son from a previous relationship, keeps turning up to borrow money; and the son he had with Rose, young Cory (Jovan Adepo), wants to try out for a college football team instead of getting a “real job”. Proceedings reach a midway flashpoint after Rose convinces Troy to build a fence around the house, and this prompts Jim to ponderously comment about what fences keep out (and keep in), Cory to rebel when he’s forced to saw wood, and Troy to confront Rose – and himself – with certain truths.
As written by Wilson (with just a little input from Tony Kushner after Wilson died, but only he is credited) and played by Denzel, Troy is a tremendous part for an ambitious actor (James Earl Jones won a Tony playing it in 1987), but that doesn’t make it an easy one to watch, as the character is so unforgiving and hypocritical that you rather wind up hating him. And watching him spout dialogue – even if he is played by Denzel – becomes something of a chore, and one that lasts for over two hours, meaning that you might eventually wish someone had built a fence around him.
Rated M. Fences is in cinemas now.