Bringing August Wilson’s play to the screen with considerable power if not much imagination, star-director-producer Denzel Washington turns “Fences” into an impressive actors’ showcase, buoyed by his reunion with Viola Davis after a Tony Award-winning 2010 stage revival.
What Washington hasn’t done – working from an adaptation that Wilson wrote before his death in 2005 – is find a way of opening up the material, which reveals its theatrical roots by feeling a trifle claustrophobic.
Derived from Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Fences” is still well worth seeing in its contemplation of the relationship between fathers and sons – and in this particular case, how the regrets, grievances and anger nursed by Washington’s Troy are visited upon his children, especially his high-school-age son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Caught in the middle is Cory’s mother Rose (Davis), who has both loved and endured Troy for 18 years, through thick and mostly thin.
It’s 1957 when the story begins, with Troy and his buddy Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) working as garbage men in Pittsburgh, grousing about how only white folks get to drive the trucks.
Yes, the world has changed from the days when Troy, a one-time baseball star, was denied an opportunity to play professionally. Jackie Robinson has integrated the Major Leagues, but the civil-rights movement remains nascent, and Troy still acutely feels all that was denied him, urging Cory not to dream of a football scholarship or get his hopes up for more.
“You just scared I’m gonna be better than you,” Cory snaps at his father, who regales him with a speech about the duty he owes his son – basically, a responsibility to clothe and feed him – that specifically omits any requirement to love or even like him. That withholding nature is also evident in Troy’s dealings with his older child (Russell Hornsby) from a short-lived first marriage, an aspiring musician who only shows up to visit on pay day.
Washington’s role is obviously meaty, and he plunges into it with a mix of swagger and vulnerability. But it’s Davis, not surprisingly, who really shakes the rafters, in a performance tailor-made for her – one where guardedness and patience gives way to ferocious rage, demonstrating that when pressed, Rose can give as good as she gets.
Yet Wilson also deals with forgiveness, and how people find the reservoirs of strength to bestow it, whatever slights and betrayals they’ve experienced. The supporting performances are uniformly strong, including Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel, rendered childlike by a war injury.
A part of Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle, “Fences” derives its title from the barriers people erect around themselves, either to keep things out or in. The movie, similarly – a bit slow, given the format, at 2 hours and 19 minutes – is somewhat boxed in by its fidelity to its stage origins, invariably a challenge when migrating such densely written material to a close-up medium.
That doesn’t mean “Fences” isn’t a good movie, and having the best seat in the house to watch these actors when they let loose is worth the price of admission. It’s just not as expansive, ultimately, as it might have been.
“Fences” opens in select U.S. cities on December 16 and wide on Christmas day. It’s rated PG-13.