Directed by: Denzel Washington
Written by: August Wilson (play/screenplay)
Featuring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davies, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Troy Maxson works as a dustbin man in 1950s Pittsburgh. A former professional baseball player who missed out on the majors when black players were allowed to take part due to his advanced years Troy has carved out the best life he can for his family. Guilty over his circumstances which is in part due to money he got from his war-wounded brother and bitter over his missed opportunities and the inequality of life for a man of his colour Troy cannot help but create tension in his family as he tries to ensure his family, and in particular his sons, have a better chance in life than he did, even if it means seemingly stopping them doing the things they really want to do.
Fences is a hugely successful stage-play and this film mainly features the cast from that play. Bearing that in mind and bearing in mind that August Wilson was trying to show a slice of life for working-class black families in the sixties you are not going to get much ‘action’ or anything the average cinema-goer would see as exciting. Denzel Washington and his ensemble must have slipped into their roles like familiar slippers. It shows.
Viola Davies and the rest of the cast are consummate actors so you know you are in some safe hands if nothing else. The film has one actor that the stage play didn’t have though and that is the city of Pittsburgh which is where Washington filmed this adaptation and if nothing else it helps to layer on the realism.
Being a silly old man from Hampshire I cannot vouch for the language, slang and nuances of the script in relation to 1950s Pittsburgh but the language and conversations seemed real to me. In my opinion, working-class people from that era with a limited access to good education probably could not express themselves quite so clearly and if my grand-dad was anything to go by they did talk as much and feelings were never discussed. Mind you if you made a film that realistic, it would be very short and very boring, so it is not any sort of criticism.
The small situations, battles and dilemmas the family finds themselves in seem real and in all honesty, they could easily have been set in any city and with any family of any creed. I feel Wilson wanted the story to be universal and feel relevant to anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity anyone whose family was poor and had to work really hard for every penny can take something from it.
Certainly, they are many people who can recall a wife, a tour-de-force by Viola Davies, who through some strong sense of loyalty and what is right stands by her man despite him doing many things that don’t deserve that loyalty. The film does not pontificate, no one says this is right rather that it’s just how it is and how she feels. The roles of Maxson’s two sons are ably filled by Hornsby and non-cast regular Adepo, Mykelti Williamson plays the very difficult role of Gabriel’s brother who suffered a severe head wound in the war, in the wrong hands this could easily be comedic and finally Stephen Henderson is a stand-out as Maxson’s long-time and loyal friend who tries to keep his friend on the straight and narrow. It’s all good.
You do have to bear in mind this is a near-direct transfer of a successful stage play to the screen. It is going to be talky and the players are going to have to-and-fro dialogue zipping between them. Its main weakness is probably that it does seem ‘stagey’ at times and if you do not like watching stage plays then you will probably not like this.