Den­zel Wash­ing­ton is fe­ro­cious in “Fences”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hornaday

min­utes. PG-13. 139

Den­zel Wash­ing­ton de­liv­ers a leo­nine, de­vour­ingly pow­er­ful per­for­mance as one of Amer­i­can the­ater’s most im­pos­ing pa­tri­archs in “Fences,” a clas­sic of con­tem­po­rary dra­matic lit­er­a­ture that has fi­nally re­ceived a re­spect­ful, of­ten stir­ring, adap­ta­tion for the screen.

Wash­ing­ton takes on di­rect­ing du­ties as well for a film that was adapted by play­wright Au­gust Wil­son be­fore he died in 2005. As a piece of cin­ema, “Fences” doesn’t swing for the go­for-broke lim­its sug­gested by the ti­tle. Stagy, speech-y and limited mostly to a scruffy back yard of a work­ing-class house in 1950s Pitts­burgh, it of­ten feels con­fined, even when Wash­ing­ton’s cam­era ven­tures out to a neigh­bor­hood bar or work­place.

But the con­stricted at­mos­phere is pre­cisely what is called for in a rich char­ac­ter study of a man burst­ing with pent-up re­sent­ment, thwarted po­ten­tial and mas­cu­line pride. As the film’s fe­ro­ciously charis­matic pro­tag­o­nist Troy Max­son, Wash­ing­ton roars and keeps on roar­ing, serv­ing up Wil­son’s an­gry so­lil­o­quies not so much as ver­bal arias as al­pha-male rit­u­als of dom­i­nance and ag­gres­sion. As he prowls his own postage-stamp sized piece of turf, Troy emerges as a fig­ure every bit as mythic, con­tra­dic­tory and clas­si­cally com­bat­ive as his name sug­gests.

There may not have been city san­i­ta­tion work­ers in Euripi­des’s time, but Wil­son im­bues Troy’s pro­fes­sion with wel­come grav­i­tas and heroic mean­ing. As “Fences” opens, Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Hen­der­son) are just fin­ish­ing their shift, with Troy loudly com­plain­ing that the bet­ter-paid driv­ers’ jobs are un­avail­able to African-Amer­i­cans. When the two re­pair to Troy’s back­yard to share a bot­tle of gin and repar­tee, Troy’s talk con­tin­ues, es­ca­lat­ing into an ex­u­ber­ant rec­ol­lec­tion of when he “stared down” death dur­ing a bout of pneu­mo­nia.

With Wash­ing­ton seem­ing to grow steadily more tipsy in real time, the se­quence an­nounces in no un­cer­tain terms that we’re in the hands of a mas­ter sto­ry­teller — a spin­ner of yarns for whom nar­ra­tive has be­come both a pri­son and ar­mor against a world in which, he says later, he was born with two strikes al­ready against him.

Part of the au­di­ence’s fas­ci­na­tion with Troy is how swiftly he con­jures dra­mat­i­cally com­pet­ing emo­tions: One mo­ment we’re sym­pa­thiz­ing with him for not get­ting his shot as a pro­fes­sional base­ball player, and the next he’s run­ning down star play­ers by pooh-poohing the Ne­gro Leagues. One mo­ment he em­bod­ies the kind of strength and self-re­liance for which the Amer­i­can work­ing class is de­servedly li­on­ized, the next he’s cru­elly stamp­ing out the am­bi­tions of his teenage son Cory (Jo­van Adepo), who wants to play foot­ball for his high school team.

Over­see­ing Troy’s com­bustible mix of rage and re­morse is his wife Rose, por­trayed by Vi­ola Davis in a mag­nif­i­cent per­for­mance rooted in still­ness, but burst­ing with pas­sion, life and — when the plot takes a dev­as­tat­ing turn — su­per­hu­man for­ti­tude and self-sac­ri­fice. (Wash­ing­ton and Davis are repris­ing roles that earned each of them a Tony Award for the 2010 Broad­way re­vival of “Fences.”) Other char­ac­ters come and go, in­clud­ing Troy’s adult son by an­other mar­riage, and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Wil­liamson), a brain-in­jured war vet­eran whose per­func­tory ap­pear­ances feel more sym­bol­i­cally con­ve­nient than or­ganic.

As Gabriel’s name sug­gests, the specter (or promise) of heav­enly reck­on­ing is a con­stant pres­ence in “Fences,” which among its many virtues gives the lie to this era’s facile con­dem­na­tions of iden­tity pol­i­tics. In this sur­pass­ingly Amer­i­can story, we see how his­tor­i­cal and struc­tural real­i­ties in­scribe them­selves into our most per­sonal trau­mas and tri­umphs. The fates and lega­cies that clash and en­mesh them­selves through­out “Fences” are just as much prod­ucts of Oedi­pal psy­chol­ogy and per­sonal trauma as the Mid­dle Pas­sage and the Great Mi­gra­tion.

Those forces come to­gether in the swirling vor­tex of Troy’s psy­che in “Fences,” which takes the mea­sure of its un­ruly main char­ac­ter, down to the last trou­ble­some inch. Wil­son’s writ­ing and Wash­ing­ton’s gen­er­ous per­for­mance al­low the au­di­ence to revel in Troy’s spiky hu­mor and brusquely de­liv­ered home truths, even while winc­ing at his ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion and brutish­ness.

Ring­ing with both an­cient wis­dom and sear­ing rel­e­vance, “Fences” feels as if it’s been crafted for the ages, and for this very minute. Like all time­less per­son­al­i­ties, Troy is a man for our era, whether he’s com­ing at us in full roar or by way of a far more haunt­ing whis­per.

Den­zel Wash­ing­ton and Vi­ola Davis reprise their Broad­way roles as Troy and Rose Max­son in “Fences.” Photo by David Lee, pro­vided by Para­mount Pic­tures

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