Electrifying performances from Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and a stunning cast—enacting one of the great 20th century American plays—make Fences a must-see. August Wilson left a mighty mark on the theater world, but only one of his plays was transferred to film when the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented The Piano Lesson on television more than twenty years ago.
Wilson, who died in 2005, adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences for the screen. He didn’t live to see that screenplay realized, nor did he witness the much-lauded revival of the 1985 drama on Broadway in 2010. Luckily for us its star Denzel Washington has reassembled the key players for this production.
Relieved of the constraints of the stage director Washington was able to film on the actual streets of Pittsburgh where the story takes place. He takes us inside the house where the characters live and plants us in their back yard where many important conversations occur. People usually refer to this as “opening up” a play but Washington and his cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who shot The Girl on the Train and Far from the Madding Crowd) have kept things simple and straightforward.
What really matters is the richness of August Wilson’s writing. The story takes place in the 1950s. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a working stiff with a chip on his shoulder the size of an oak tree. He has a steady job with the Pittsburgh sanitation department and enjoys bantering with his coworker and pal Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), but he knows he’s getting the short end of the stick. White men get to drive the garbage trucks and make more money; black men do the heavy lifting on the back end.
There are other, more complex reasons for Troy’s simmering anger, some of which we learn early on, with others to be revealed later. The anchor in his life is his devoted wife, played by the incomparable Viola Davis. She helps him weather the constant storms caused by his two sons (one from a previous marriage) and his brain-damaged brother (Mykelti Williamson).
But Troy is not an easy man to like. He has just cause for some of his bitterness but takes it out on his teenage son, making unfair demands on the boy based on his own narrow-minded ideas.
These are real people with honest feelings and believable flaws. That’s what makes Fences so compelling. Washington dominates the screen but every one of his costars gets to shine alongside him…and when the spotlight is on Davis we’re reminded once again what a remarkable actress she is. Her emotions bubble to the surface and she holds nothing back.
Until now these characters have only existed for theatergoers. Now, thanks to this film, they will live forever and be seen by a much wider audience. Folks will likely be drawn in by the star power of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, but they may leave thinking just as much about the brilliance of August Wilson.