Playwright August Wilson is about ten years gone now, dead of cancer. Denzel Washington has gotten ahold of the playwright’s screenplay version of his own “Fences.” And the resultant film is playing downtown in the mall 13-plex.
“Fences” is thoughtful, full of dramatic turns, and so loaded with big speeches that few moviegoers will be surprised to hear it began as a play. As a story, the movie lacks form. As a piece of aspirational literature, it is loaded with metaphor.
But what those who see the film will remember about it, one suspects, is the fine opportunities for actors Wilson has made in it. Washington plays the central character, Troy Maxson (the names are all very purposeful). Viola Davis gets a little room to run as his wife Rose. And the fine supporting cast includes Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson, and Russell Hornsby.
The story is a second cousin to the one in “Death of a Salesman.” It is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and begins with Troy worried he may lose the job he has had for years as a garbage man. As we go, we discover that he has trouble with both of his sons and that he had a troubled relationship with his father.
Some version of the curse of his past has caused Troy’s tragic flaw, his inability to understand what those around him need from him. He got started in pro baseball too late to fully benefit from the skills he learned while in prison for theft. But he plays with a bat and a tethered ball in his tiny urban backyard.
His regular subject of complaint is how racial prejudice harms the economic interests of African-Americans— and don’t be shocked if he calls members of his race “Negroes” or “Coloreds” as those were the accepted expressions of the day. Ironically, the complaint he has made that all drivers in Pittsburgh’s municipal refuse collection system are White is recognized as just and he is given a driver’s job.
This despite his lack of a driver’s license and his inability to read. And while he continues to take his pay home to Rose, his promotion leads to his slighting his old prison pal and long-time fellow trashtruck rider Bono (Henderson).
Troy will talk about doing his duty, and he will. But just barely. He will allow Rose to loan his older son (Hornsby) small amounts of money, but he will then needle the kid when he tries to pay the money back. Washington is all over the long speech about whether he is required to “like” his younger son—apparently not. But later events cause him to take on further parental duties, even though doing so ends his loving relationship with Rose.
And he does build the fence in the back yard for his wife. But he has to build it by himself, having chased off those who would have helped him, people he taught important lessons without necessarily producing good
effects. Troy recounts the events of his childhood, which mostly have to do with his own father. And the story doesn’t end so much as it goes on until it has give viewers enough evidence of Troy’s replication of his father’s weaknesses.
For example, our hero’s brother, Gabriel (Williamson) was injured while in the army. He receives a small pension but is now simple-minded, a wild eccentric known to roam the streets carrying a trumpet. Like Troy, he tells metaphoric stories about how he figures in religious myths and stories.
Gabe left Troy’s home because he wanted to be more independent. We learn later that Troy has used the excuse of his own illiteracy to agree to his brother’s committal to a mental hospital, with Troy getting half of the pension while Gabe lives.
In short, Troy is not a likable character. But he is complicated enough that we don’t dismiss him. The question for the viewer is, does Troy do more good than harm? Answering is not easy.
Despite its lack of narrative drive and its unpleasant subjects, “Fences” isn’t difficult to watch. Wilson and the actors have given it enough energy to keep it interesting.