Review by Mark Schwab
Stage-bound. I hear that description once in awhile when movies are adapted from stage plays. "Stagy" is another. I've heard it described of such fine films as THE BOYS IN THE BAND, GLENGARY GLEN ROSS and 'NIGHT MOTHER. And the fact is, I just don't care if a filmmaker keeps the play's roots intact. Especially if they know they have great material. Director/Star Denzel Washington was obviously aware that August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play FENCES fell into the can't-miss category of great writing so he got out of the way and let the stage flag fly. I say bravo.
Washington plays Troy Maxson - a garbage collector struggling to keep his roof from leaking in 1950's Pittsburgh. He has a devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis) and a son Cory (Jovan Adepo) living in his home and another son from a previous marriage, Lyons, (Russell Hornsby) living nearby trying to make it as a jazz musician. Troy is bitter about being treated as a 2nd class citizen just because he's African-American - mostly stemming from the fact he had a promising Negro league baseball career and just missed out on possibly breaking into the majors due to age when the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson. This regret poisons his soul and he takes his anger and fear of death out on everyone who loves him, building the metaphoric fences around his house to stave off the demons. And there are demons aplenty to parry with throughout.
There is almost instant tension from the outset in FENCES. Washington's Troy dominates the screen but never overshadows the extraordinary supporting performances from Davis, Adepo, Hornsby, Stephen Henderson as Troy's longtime friend who can see through his crap and Mykelti Williamson as Troy's war-damaged brother. In that ragged backyard, the characters all play out the messiness of secrets, lies, brutal compromises and that sometimes love can hurt as intensely as it can heal and uplift. Lessons will be learned and appreciated but at an emotional price.
The writing and acting of FENCES puts it in the rarified company of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF in pieces that hit straight down to the bone in intimacy and pack a punch that stays with you afterwards. Take my word for it - FENCES is tough going but never depressing. It's just brutal emotional truth that demands to be seen.