Denzel Washington directed and stars in “Fences,” and he has translated every element of August Wilson’s play to the screen: A language that’s naturalistic yet gently poetic, a detailed sense of America at mid-century – specifically the black man’s place in urban America – drama that turns to melodrama at key points, characterizations that seethe and explode, the touch of the fantastic (or is it the supernatural?) that pervades most of Wilson’s stories.
Those of us lucky enough to see James Earl Jones’ Troy Maxson 30 years ago on Broadway remember a larger-than-life presence, a man who cast a shadow across his whole Pittsburgh block and up to the back row of the balcony in the 46th Street Theatre. Washington brings Troy down to Earth, showing us not only seeming outer strength but inner weakness. His fall may be even more tragic in this version, for he begins to crumble almost from the beginning.
Wilson’s Tony-winning play has a spiritual father in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Like Willy Loman, Troy Maxson lives in a modest house in a quiet urban neighborhood and constantly has an unfinished project in the back yard. He wars with a son, Cory (impressive Jovan Adepo), who has rejected his father’s dream of economic stability and has staked his future on football. (Biff Loman does that, too, before giving up.)
Both men fail to realize life has not only passed them by but changed: They base their philosophies on outmoded ideas, with Troy insisting racism kept him out of major league baseball (true) and must similarly ruin Cory’s life (not true). Both fathers have quietly unhappy wives they claim to love but neglect. Rose Maxson (Viola Davis), though, finally lets out everything she has kept down for 18 years.
The film credits Wilson (who died in 2005) as the sole screenwriter, and I didn’t notice significant cuts or additions. Washington has preserved both the rich flow of language and the elements that seemed mawkish onstage, from an anticlimactic conclusion to the presence of Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s mentally incapable brother. He carries a trumpet and talks prophetically of introducing Troy to St. Peter or chasing away “hellhounds,” and the metaphor doesn’t work.
The entire cast is worthy of praise and, in Davis’ case, beyond it: Her downcast eyes speak volumes. Watch how Stephen Henderson underplays Bono, who has always lived in Troy’s shadow; he’s unobtrusive but powerful in support of his friend, a short round Sancho Panza to tall, quixotic Troy. Or see Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy’s illegitimate son, still looking for approval and a handout and ashamed to need both.
Washington turns 62 this month, and he’s a bit old for Troy. He was probably ideal in the 2010 stage revival, which also starred Davis, Hornsby, Henderson and Williamson. But familiarity with the material has bred depth: Whether roaring with pride or softly justifying inexcusable behavior, he gets deep inside this troubled character. To watch him in his misguided rages is to wonder how he’d play another self-deluded father – not Willy Loman, but Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Fences (Dec. 25)
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby.
Writer: August Wilson.
Director: Denzel Washington.
Length: 138 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some suggestive references).