Fences is one part of a ten-part epic series of the late August Wilson's 'Pittsburgh Cycle' of plays chronicling the African-American experience through the century. This is the film version of the play that is in the 1950s era in the Cycle, and 'filmed play' is the best description for Fences. It isn't a bad thing to have a filmed version of a successful, acclaimed play, performed by two great actors who won Tony Awards for their versions of said play.
Still, filmed version of the play nonetheless it is, and that is what hinders Fences from being as good a film as it could be.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directed) was a major star in the Negro Leagues who had the potential to be a fantastic Major League player. Unfortunately for him, 'coloreds' were not being drafted at his peak, and by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Maxson was 'too old' to be there. As such, he eventually found himself working as a garbage man in Pittsburgh. He managed to also go to prison for a spell prior to his baseball career, where he met his lifelong friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He also has an adult son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz musician who comes around asking for money.
The rigid Troy is reluctant to do so, insisting Lyons make his own way. It's only the involvement of Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) that smooth's things out. Troy and Rose's son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) has great football skills and is in line for a scholarship, but Troy insists Cory will not get far because of his race. Rose pushes the idea that times are changing for African-Americans, but he won't hear it.
What he will hear is Cory working with him on the fence Troy wants to put up, something that has taken a great deal of time. Troy is angered that Cory wants to play football and thinks it will get him a better life. Troy is also a bit conflicted over his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). Gabe suffered a head wound in the war, and the money he got for his injuries allowed Troy to buy the family house. Gabe, who carries a horn around with him (Gabriel's Horn, I suppose), has moved out but is still troubled.
Over the course of Fences, Troy ruins Cory's chances for football and reveals to Rose that he is going to be a father. The relationships between Troy and his wife and sons is strained to breaking point, and when Troy's baby-mama dies in childbirth, Rose reluctantly takes her husband's child in. Lyons has found some success in music, Troy himself has even moved up from garbage collector to driver (the first black sanitation driver in the city), and Cory, bitter and angry, joins the Marines.
At the end, Cory returns for Troy's funeral, and Rose reprimands him for not wanting to join the family in mourning their very flawed but all-too-human man. Raynell (Saniya Sidney), the daughter who knows nothing of all the chaos and believes Rose to be her actual mother, joins her essentially unknown brother on the porch, and the family (including Gabe who was temporarily released from the hospital Troy put him in much earlier), have an informal farewell to this sad and complex figure.
Instead, Fences rarely if every goes out from a few locations: the Maxsom house is the primary setting for the film. There is one scene at the hospital where Gabe is (which if memory serves was just Troy feeding his brother) and one at a bar (which I suspect might have been in the play). Oh yes, there is also one in an alley where Rose confronts Troy, but apart from that, Fences never takes an opportunity to open up the production.
I think a major part of this is the fact that while August Wilson wrote the screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, he died in 2005. In the ensuing decade-plus, no one could either readapt it without taking credit or go to Wilson to rework it. There was no chance of expanding the scope of Fences, and we have a very limited presentation.
Now, I am not complaining about the locked-in manner of Fences. On the whole, the film works. It's just that it keeps things very confined and lends an air of theatricality to what should be a film.
Still, again, while this limits Fences the virtues of the film push it forward. There isn't a bad performance in Fences save perhaps Williamson as the mentally disabled Gabe. This is a part that should be handled delicately, and I imagine a difficult one to play without going overboard. Williams doesn't quite manage it, and it looks like he's just recreating Bubba from Forrest Gump (a film I thoroughly detest).
Washington has had the benefit of having played Troy on stage before transferring to film, and his Troy is a fascinating creation (even though my sense is that James Earl Jones' original version was probably better). Troy is a man you end up respecting and loathing in equal measure, one eaten up by anger and bitterness over how his baseball talents were kept down. It makes his thinking rational, but it also makes him rigid, even hypocritical: preaching responsibility while fooling around on a good woman like Rose.
Davis is the real knockout in Fences: her Rose a long-suffering but loving woman, who cares about people and deserved much better. Her scene when Troy tells her about his impending fatherhood is handled so well. She brings the mix of disbelief, shock, anger, and pain in her face, her voice, her body. Again, she has known this character for some time, and that I'm sure helped, but given Davis' talent I figure she would have done just as well if she came into it with no background to it.
Adepo and Hornsby also excelled as Troy's sons, with the former having a fantastic moment as he challenges the old man. You think it's going to go one way, but it turns out another, and shows how good one actor can be when he's trying to keep up with the other. Henderson brought a lot of joy and laughter to his Bono, but when he needs to be serious, he too matches Washington and Davis in terms of performance.
Again, it's a terrible shame August Wilson isn't here for a variety of reasons. It might have been good to have let him have a chance to open up the film more (perhaps a scene at the school where Troy goes to destroy his son's chance at a future with football, or one where Rose goes to God to help the devout woman deal through all this). Fences, as a filmed play is excellent. Fences, as a film itself, is flawed, but well worth the visit. With strong performances almost all around, Fences is a credit to Wilson and the actors (maybe not so much with Washington as director, not terrible but not truly sensational either).
Hopefully, we'll get more adaptations of Wilson's work to add to this strong though flawed film.