In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway production of August Wilson’s play Fences. It was a big hit and won many awards. What you are effectively getting here is a filmed staging of that. At very few points is it in any way cinematic. It is stubbornly a play, but a very good play.
Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and centres on Troy Maxson (Washington). Troy works as a bin man, eking out a meagre existence. This is not the life Troy believes he should have had. He frequently bangs on about how his great baseball skills would have seen him in the Major League if only it had accepted black players earlier. His resentment gnaws away at him like a persistent termite, burrowed deep. The sting of Troy’s perceived failures worsens when his son (Jovan Adepo) announces that he has a shot at joining a college football team, which could be a first step to the NFL. The house becomes a pressure cooker.
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Washington directs as well as starring and he directs like an actor. He is in love with the dialogue, which is grand and beautiful, and has his camera sit back to admire it. The story is told largely through a series of monologues, mostly delivered in Troy’s backyard. Beautifully written as they are, none has the sound of natural dialogue. Everyone strides in sounding like they’ve rehearsed.
If there is an ingrained falseness to it, it’s no fault of the actors. Mike Leigh-ish subtlety would be no good to anyone with this script. These are big words and big feelings requiring big performances, and the cast act the hell out of them. Everyone is on form, but the strongest among them is Viola Davis, already hoovering up most Best Supporting Actress Awards. As Troy’s wife Rose, she has a quieter purpose as the resident peacekeeper, but she has not lived decades with him without developing her own resentments. Davis underplays until Rose reaches breaking point, then lets fly in a scene that makes you catch your breath. It still has the remove of a play, but for that scene you feel like you have the best seats in the house.