Divided lives

Denzel Washington directs August Wilson's Fences 

In Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, a father and son labor for what seems like years on a fence in their backyard. The metaphorical implications aren't subtle, nor are they meant to be.

The film is an adaptation of a 1983 play by August Wilson that's set in the 1950s and steeped in the tradition of domestic melodramas of that era.

Washington also stars in the film as Troy Maxson, a career garbage man who could have had a career as a baseball player if not for the color of his skin—and if he hadn't been incarcerated during his prime. (Both reasons are at play, but Troy finds it less painful to blame the forces beyond his control.)

Now in his 50s, Troy has a wife named Rose (Viola Davis), a grown son (Russell Hornsby) who makes his way as a musician, and a teenage son at home named Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is a bright kid with a potential football scholarship in his future, which plainly threatens his father's pride. Troy's oldest and most loyal friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), hangs around the Maxson's yard on Friday afternoons after the long workweek, sharing a pint of gin. And he delivers the film's most salient metaphor: "Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in."

Finally, there's Troy's brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime head injury has left him childlike and mentally disturbed. Should he be allowed to roam the neighborhood fighting off the devil's hellhounds, the film often asks, or would he be better off in an institution?

click to enlarge Fences stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
  • Fences stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Uninspired critics have complained that this adaptation is uncinematic, and that's an observation that's both technically true and pointless. The movie breaks one of our most precious narrative rules: You're supposed to show the action instead of standing around talking about it. In place of cinematic action, Fences gives us an ensemble of some of the best actors of our time, playing characters who passionately discuss the ordinary drama of their lives. Washington's unadorned direction allows space for Wilson's strange and powerful dialogue, at times simple and at times downright Shakespearean, to unfold. In one heated conversation about their marital difficulties, Troy tells Rose, "We go upstairs in that room at night, and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever."

Spanning some 10 years, the film exquisitely captures the downtrodden spirit of black America on its way to the middle class, a time when things were bad, but maybe getting a little better. Framed photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy on the Maxson's kitchen wall are a nice touch.

Still, it's my job to warn that Fences may overwhelm you with its heaviness, and its old-fashioned patriarchal values are bound to horrify female audience members of a younger generation—like me, for example. Troy is bombastic and at times charming, but he's also an incorrigible bastard who's hard to sympathize with or love. In modern parlance, we'd probably say he suffers from PTSD, having grown up with an abusive father. Troy insists that the responsibilities of a father begin and end with bringing home a paycheck—a painstaking labor, as he repeatedly reminds his family. Troy's inability to show love or sympathy for his son makes me unable to forgive him, even when the story asks me to.

But these performances are killer, the source material is smart, and there's a lesson beneath the heavy-handedness that makes it worth the endeavor: Life unfolds painfully and unfairly, but goddamn if we aren't blessed to embody these ruined lives anyway.

Fences opens Sun., Dec. 25, at the Carmike 12.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Divided lives"

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