Paramount Pictures 138 minutes PG-13
Combine the lyrical writing of Pulitzer prize winner, August Wilson, with the acting power of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Add direction by Denzel himself, and the result is an emotional experience that stays with you long after the lights come back up in the theater.
Washington and Davis won Tony awards playing these same roles more than 100 times on Broadway. That doesn’t always translate to the big screen, but this time, it does. And it was shot in sequence, like the play. Washington says the words are the music. At one point, Troy doesn’t stop talking for 46 minutes! Denzel says we get to know how strongly he feels and violence is not necessary to express it.
August Wilson demanded that an African American direct the film. Denzel met with the writer who locks his house down when he writes. No distractions. He told Denzel that “he writes what the characters tell him to write.” And his job, as director, was to get the camera in front of the actors to get what they’re doing and have been doing all along on stage. Only this time, you get to see it up close as the camera goes in on their faces. The performances may remind you of people in your own family and they are powerful.
Denzel plays Troy Maxson, the most likable unlikable character imaginable. One moment he's funny and sensitive. In the next he's full of rage and anger, lashing out at the people he loves most, taking it out on his sweet wife, Rose, who finally fights back with a vengeance, and especially with his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers). Davis says Wilson creates what Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman. He created a flawed anti-hero for Rose and Cory. For some, fences keep people in, for others they keep others out. That’s what this is all about.
Troy is a sanitation worker who was once a shining baseball star in the old Negro League. By the time black players stepped onto Major League Baseball diamonds, he was too old to get his shot. His character is infused with the underlying regret and rage at that injustice that colors his worldview.
Jovan Adepo is the newcomer but says the whole cast not only took him under their wing, even hanging out together on weekends. He said Davis would answer any question any time and Denzel was calm and understanding, when he wasn’t playing Troy. He has to go head-to-head with Denzel throughout the film and holds his own. Cory wants to go for a football scholarship, follow his dream and be like his Dad who is adamant against it. In one scene, you think there’s going to be bloodshed and Adepo says he was surprised when Denzel started poking him in the head with a bat. But that’s as far as it gets. It’s just tense. Watch for more from this talented young actor. (Q & A soon recorded at the Cinema/Chicago screening we attended with Jovan Adepo.)
Wilson wrote both the play in 1983 (set in the 1950’s) and the film script. This screenplay is his first. Fences is the 6th in his 10 part “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays exploring the Black Experience in 20th Century America. Denzel went to The Hill District in Pittsburgh before shooting began and went door to door to tell people in the neighborhood what he was going to do. They welcomed him with open arms, proud of “homeboy” Wilson’s play being shot in their community, where residents even offered the cast and crew homemade goodies during production. Davis says the people there feel very protective of Fences and consider Wilson their hero. She describes the Hill District is another character in the film that “informs the narrative.”
Davis is considering herself in a supporting role playing Rose, but she’s every bit one of the leads. She says women of the ‘50s were repressed and she tried to show that until something happens to make it bubble over and she lets Troy have it. It’s all about identities, marriage, parenthood, relationships with friends and family, and the loss of dreams. Honesty is a big part of Denzel’s directing and simplicity down to her look. Her facial expressions without as many words as Troy, say so much.
Stephen McKinley Henderson who plays Troy’s best friend and co-worker, Bono and Mykelti Williamson, who plays Troy’s brother, Gabriel,were both part of the “Dream Team” on Broadway with Washington and Davis. Williamson calls being in the film a responsibility and honor. There was some pressure to continue to make the brilliant words of August Wilson sing. He plays the brother who joined the army to become the kind of hero Troy was in baseball, but came home with a severe brain injury. His characterization will melt your heart. And in the last scene, when Gabriel looks to the sky, there was something that happened that was not scripted. The gate opened and closed by itself which freaked out the cast.
Denzel calls Wilson’s script a Masterpiece and says it has a rhythm all its own. This cast practically sings it with passion and power. It applies as much today as it did then in terms of race, family relationships, dreams. All the bases are covered. Too bad Troy didn’t get to play baseball in The Bigs. It might have changed all their lives. But that doesn’t keep this movie from swinging for the fences and hitting it out of the park.