Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
Fences was first a Pulitzer Prize play by August Wilson and is now a movie directed by Denzel Washington. Set in Pittsburgh of the 1950s, it touches on themes of family, duty, loyalty, and overcoming one’s difficult past. Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an uneducated black man who rides on the back of a trash truck and empties trash cans into the truck. He has a best friend and co-worker named Jim Bono; a brain-damaged (from the war) brother named Gabriel; a dutiful wife named Rose (played by Viola Davis); a 34-year-old musician son (by another wife) named Lyons; and a teenage son named Cory who wants to play football. We learn about Troy’s life as he reveals it in dialogue. One of eleven children, he left home at age fourteen to make his own way. He fell into a life of crime and stealing and ended up in prison, where he spent fifteen years. If prison taught him nothing else, it taught him to go straight.
He’s had a stable marriage with Rose for eighteen years. He goes to work every day and owns the house he lives in, but life isn’t easy for him. He struggles to pays the bills and, when he wants to advance in his job from trash collector to driver, he is dismayed to learn that his company only hires white men as drivers. His friend, Jim Bono, chides him for not having a driver’s license and not being able to read, but if there’s one thing Troy has, it’s determination. Life has made him hard and intractable. He seems at times to have lost the touch of humanity he needs to get along with his family. If we come to understand Troy, we also come to not like him very much.
When Troy comes to Rose in the kitchen one day and tells her he is about to become “somebody’s daddy,” she reacts about as expected. He has taken up with a much younger woman named Alberta and has impregnated her. When he tries to explain to Rose why he has sought the company of another woman, Rose isn’t buying it; all she can see is the betrayal. She says she might have expected it when he was ten or fifteen years younger, but not at his age. “Age has nothing to do with it,” he says. Alberta makes him laugh “down to the bottoms of his shoes” and makes him forget for a little while how hard his life is.
I was lucky enough to see Fences performed live onstage a number of years ago. The movie version is essentially unchanged from the play. (The playwright, August Wilson, wrote the screenplay.) It’s fairly static and stagey for a movie; they (the filmmakers) have opened up the action a little bit, but not much. Most of it takes place in the back yard of Troy’s home and it’s a fairly talky affair. If you like authentic-sounding dialogue and are a fan of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, you’ll love Fences. If you’re a big action fan, though, and are looking for some action, you’ll probably be disappointed. This is what you might call a deep character study, a slice of life, for the more serious-minded among us.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp