I think we can all agree that Denzel Washington has been consistently strong for a while now even when the movies themselves haven’t been very good. Washington has primarily been in mediocre action films of late (“The Magnificent Seven,” “The Equalizer,” etc.) but he manages to bring a sense of authority and charisma to each one, always making him compelling to watch. He makes the most of his characters even when the writing isn’t there to support them.
In “Fences” (an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play) Washington is given a juicy, nuanced role to sink his teeth into, resulting in his best acting work in years. As the working class husband/father Troy Maxson, Washington’s performance is one of unfiltered swagger and bombastic charm. Though Washington also cuts deeper, revealing a flawed, world-weary man fraught with insecurity and bottled up emotional trauma.
Troy is a man who loves to talk. In a film that’s driven by dialogue his voice can be heard the most, sometimes not allowing others to get a word in. Whether it’s politics, race, his job as a sanitation worker or baseball he has seemingly unlimited opinions to spout. Troy has a knack for spinning compelling yarns, like when he playfully tells a familiar story about his three day struggle with pneumonia to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), making the experience more dramatic than it probably was. It’s captivating to watch. If you were you to run into him in a bar you could listen to him to talk all night.
However, through all his talk, through Troy’s need to dominate whatever conversation he’s in, an aggressive, abusive personality reveals itself. He can be downright cruel and self-absorbed. He routinely criticizes others, tells others how to live their lives, without acknowledging his own shortcomings. Troy seems unable and unwilling to connect with his two sons, or anyone from that generation. He prides himself on being a blue-collar worker and uses that status to flex superiority over them and others, seeing no meaningful lifestyle outside of learning a skill and getting a manual labor job (one son wants to play college football, the other is a struggling musician). Overall, Troy is unable to move outside of his experience and point of view. It’s his way or the highway.
Yet it’s a hell of an experience. Troy’s aggression and stubbornness comes from a place of shame and fear—in regards his own turbulent family upbringing and his racial identity. He is after all a black man living in 1950’s America and though we never see any blatant racism we don’t need to. The context is there, in every passionate word he speaks. In the way a friendly conversation about baseball turns into a weighty, emotionally charged discussion of racism in American athletics. Troy’s loud and hostile exterior thinly veils a deep seeded vulnerability; it’s how he’s been able to keep his head up in these harsh times.
Washington’s multilayered performance of energetic highs and aching lows (inspiring both frustration and empathy. Troy is highly imperfect but he isn’t a one-dimensional monster) is the beating heart of the entire picture.
The rest of the acting in “Fences” is aces, particularly Davis. Rose’s personality is much more timid than her husband’s and at first she comes off one dimensionally passive—the loyal and submissive wife/mother. Though as the film goes on, the character gradually becomes more explosive and emphatic. While still understated in comparison to Troy, Rose blossoms into an assertive three-dimensional character, with her own set of problems and unwilling to take Troy’s verbal abuse (and later infidelities) lying down. She’s one of the few characters that calls him out on his selfishness and thoroughly dresses him down at crucial moments. Rose holds her own, firmly and consistently reminding Troy that she’s there too. Yet she never fully sheds her compassion and loyalty towards Troy, recognizing that vulnerability in him and finding the good.
Regarding the rest of the film, Washington (who also directs) embraces the theatricality of the material. Everything in “Fences” is communicated through acting and Wilson’s energetic, roughly poetic dialogue. Washington’s camera sits quietly and passively like a curious observer (capturing the action primarily in medium shots) allowing the performers to do their thing and the writing to speak for itself. It’s a strategy that largely works because the performances and dialogue are so enthralling.
Though sometimes Washington’s faithfulness to the theatrical style and structure holds it back as a film. With most of the action confined to the family house, things can feel too stagey and static when it doesn’t need to be. It’s as close as you can get to theater onscreen short of filming a live theatrical performance. Considering the story takes place in Pittsburg, Washington could have explored that urban atmosphere a little more; the few instances where we see the characters interacting outside of the home give the film some much needed movement and sense of place. The picture could have benefited from more. It would have been great to see more of Troy at his job--that off-screen meeting between he and his white boss about becoming a truck driver, for example. There’s not much of an adaptation process, which isn’t seriously detrimental but it keeps “Fences” from being a great cinematic experience.