FENCES, drama, rated PG-13, Violet Crown,
“When old Blue died, he died so hard, Shook the ground in my backyard.” —
It’s taken over 30 years for August Wilson’s Tonyand Pulitzer-winning drama, to make it from Broadway to the screen. Now that it’s there, it’s as if it never left the stage. And I mean that in the best sense.
is about words, hopes and dreams, pride and anger, disappointment and survival; about songs from the heart. On the stage, it all took place in the backyard of a house in a rundown black neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The house belongs to Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a fifty-three-year-old former Negro League ballplayer whose best years were behind him by the time Jackie Robinson broke Major League baseball’s color barrier in 1947. The action of the story is set less than a decade later, and Troy is still bitter about the timing of his baseball career, where his best friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), says Troy was as good as Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, but came along too early for a black man to play in the majors. “There ought not to have been such a time as coming along too early,” Troy snaps.
Troy works for the sanitation department, and as the movie opens we see him out slinging trash barrels into the back of a truck with Bono, and grousing about the color line in the department that relegates Negroes to do the heavy lifting, and only lets white men drive the truck.
The fact that Troy owns his own house is a source of pride, but it’s also a burr of shame under his saddle. He appropriated the purchase money from the government’s disability payment to his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered brain trauma in the war. Gabe used to live with them, but has now moved out to board nearby. He drops by often, and wanders the streets with a childlike sweetness, engaging in conversation with St. Peter at the heavenly gates.
Washington, who played the same role in a 2010 Broadway revival, also directs, and overall he does such a terrific job that you can’t help but notice the occasional places where he tries too hard for movie relevance. But that’s getting ahead of the issue, which is that this is a deeply observed, felt, and realized production infused with superb performances.
Matching Washington stroke for stroke is the great Viola Davis as Rose, Troy’s long-suffering wife, who provides wisdom and ballast to his mercurial, largerthan-life mood swings (they both won Tonys for their stage roles). Their son Cory ( Jovan Adepo), a promising high-school football player, still lives at home. An older son by his previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who can be counted on to show up on payday to borrow a few bucks.
After work, Troy and Bono sit in the backyard and pass a pint around, trading quips and reflecting on the vagaries of life, particularly the slice of life dished out to blacks in midcentury America, and talking about the fence that Troy wants to build between his yard and the derelict house next door. Troy tells tall tales about his showdown with Death, when he had pneumonia and the grim old fellow came calling. This feast of talk is the story’s heart, and it ranges from high spirits and infectious laughter to dark plunges of mood, and dangerous tensions.
The curse of apartheid that robs the dignity of a black man in America is the focus of Wilson’s story, but in Davis’ Rose we also come face to face with the suffering and humiliation and deferral of self that go with being another rung down the ladder: a black woman.
The occasional distractions in this powerfully rendered movie come not so much from opening the action up to take it beyond the backyard and give it cinematic space to roam in, but from an over-reliance on closeups, and bits like the camera following a rose that falls from a hand to the ground, or a montage of weather to show the passage of time. But these are small quibbles to make in a film in which the main impact of Washington’s direction is to honor the work of his fine actors, and to celebrate the words of the playwright, which seem to have survived unadulterated and almost intact from the stage. (The screenplay, slightly worked over by Tony Kushner, is credited solely to Wilson, and hews closely to the one he wrote before his death in 2005.)
From time to time, Troy sings snatches of an old folk song about a dog named Blue, a dog of such stature that he shook the backyard when he fell down dead. You feel this larger-than-life quality in Troy; for all his bad traits, and Washington does not scrimp on laying them out for us to see, he is a man who fills the house, and the yard, and the lives of the people he touches. — Jonathan Richards