FENCES, drama, rated PG-13, Vi­o­let Crown,

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - Amer­i­can folk song Fences Fences,

“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

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