Dir. Denzel Washington. U.S. 2016

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“Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner,” Troy Maxson

Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, Denzel Washington brings to the screen his 2010 Tony Award winning performance of 53-year-old Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s powerful play, Fences, one of a cycle of his plays that depict the African-American experience in America. The illiterate Troy is a sanitation worker who is fond of telling stories about his brutal childhood when he left home at the age of 14, the years he spent in prison for robbery and murder, and his stint as a Negro League baseball player where his skills were not recognized. Married for 18 years to his devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis), Troy is a man full of both humor and sadness who blames racism for his past failures.

The opening scene sets the stage for the relationships that continue throughout the film. Troy is seen after a day’s work with bantering with his close friend and fellow worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), talking about his work ethic, bragging about his sports prowess and blustering about other subjects of which he is guaranteed to have an opinion as Rose looks on and smiles. With Bono, he is funny and charming but another side of him, a hurtful side, does not take long to emerge. Maxson is building a fence to keep folks like the devil and death on the other side, but, of course, fences are no barrier to them. Though Rose suggests that getting rid of the bottle might serve the purpose better than a fence, he won’t listen as he declares “I ain’t goin easy.”

Central to the film is the contentious father-son relationship between dad Troy and his teenage son Cory (newcomer Jovan Adepo). Cory is a boy with big ideas and football plays a major role in them. A skilled high school athlete, he has been recruited for a scholarship to college and a recruiter is coming to their house to have Troy sign the papers, but Troy is not supportive. Because of his own failed dreams of becoming a major league baseball player, he tells Cory that it is more important for him to work at the super market than play football, “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway,” he says. The end result, however, is to permanently damage their relationship.

Desperate for his father’s affection, Cory asks him whether or not he likes him but the answer is not what he wants to hear. “Does the law say I have to like you?” Troy asks him, saying that he is only responsible for his son’s material needs: food, clothing and shelter and that’s it, making fatherhood sound like a burdensome responsibility rather than an act of love. In a later confrontation, Adepo’s strength and steely determination comes close to stealing the show from its star. Other players are also important to the story. Besides Rose and Cory, his son Lyons (Russell Hornby) from a former marriage, an unemployed musician, shows up usually on payday to ask to borrow some money which always gives dad an opportunity to tell him how worthless he is.

Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mikelti Williamson), a mentally damaged war veteran with a metal plate in his head is a frequent visitor. Like the archangel of the same name, he carries a trumpet and thinks he is the messenger of God. Though Troy, to his credit, treats Gabe with respect, it is partially out of guilt feelings that his brother’s disability check allowed him to buy his house. Troy saves his final hurt for Rose, however, a woman who has given him eighteen years of his life. Rose emerges from the shadows towards the latter part of the film to dominate the drama and her words to her husband say it all. What about my life?, she asks. With tears streaming down her face, she says, “I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom.” It is one of the most moving scenes in the film.

Troy is an embittered character  who is reminiscent of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” another tired and aging worker who realizes how little satisfaction his life has brought.  It is a different time, however, and some of his attitudes and resentments are understandable in that context as is his surprise and joy when he becomes the first black driver. Fences is a powerhouse drama delivered with passion that provides one of the few depictions in American cinema of the African-American working class. Though it is basically a filmed play shot mainly in the backyard of Maxson’s house, the soaring poetry of the language and the superb quality of the acting more than compensates for its cinematic limitations. It is not an easily forgettable experience.


Howard Schumann

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