It seems ridiculously obvious to say it, but Fences is a film about boundaries and hurdles.
Based on the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning 1983 play by August Wilson about a man – Troy Maxson – and the limitations he places on himself and his significant others as a way of dealing with the world.
Directing a feature film for just the third time in his career, Denzel Washington stars in arguably his best role in four decades of acting.
Washington is a perfect fit for Maxson, living in the spirited character like a pair of gloves he has won a world title fight with, opposite an impassioned and informed performance from Viola Davis as his wife Rose.
The film takes some adjusting to as Troy and his mate Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) work their way through the street of 1950s Pittsburgh, hanging onto the back of a garbage truck, as they collect rubbish, tell tall tales involving watermelons and discuss the likelihood of Troy ever advancing to drive a truck like all the white employees seem able to do.
Their language is a shock, and like the impeccable TV series The Wire, I would have loved some subtitles. The pair leave work and head home for the weekend, delivering a sack of potatoes and a tub of lard to Troy’s kitchen before retiring to his back yard to share a pint of gin, Troy’s one and only drinking day of the week.
He tells a story about cheating death, much to the amusement of Rose and Bono, who have clearly heard the story many times before, but always with fresh twists. Troy’s personality takes over a great volume of space around him as he moves around his house, making it clear he is the dominant creature here.
A baseball hangs on a rope from a tree branch, a constant reminder of Troy’s time playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. His acrimony towards the sport stems from circumstances in his life that prevented him from having a shot at playing in the Major Leagues, and he is obsessed with the hardship of his fellow Black Americans and the discrimination against them, despite Rose insisting that the world is changing, but he just can’t see it.
Fences is a film that is built on dialogue and the intensity, or subtlety of its delivery. The performances from Troy’s son from a previous relationship Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and his son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo) are exceptional. Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson – Bubba from Forrest Gump), injured fighting in the US Military, and who is now left roaming the streets with a metal plate in his head and a trumpet around his neck chasing Hell Hounds while he waits for the Rapture, is a further source of anguish for Tory.
As Troy’s story unfolds in tellings over his weekly bottle of gin we can see what a conflicted, troubled, stoic and vulnerable human being he is, and without his rules, how his world would fall into ruin.
Indeed when he himself falls foul of the rules, Troy brings home a situation which forces Rose to confront her life with him.
Personally I myself have struggled with the idea of what a man should be, and this portrait of a mid 20th Century male, albeit one who has had to overcome far greater adversity than I could ever imagine, explicitly explores how hard a male has to work to come to terms with the very notion of what masculinity is and what it is to be a man.
Troy has created a life for himself with rigid lines, designed to keep him from repeating serious mistakes that have seen him in all kinds of misfortune throughout his time on Earth. His expectation that others also require the same boundaries creates enormous conflict in his life, but his dominating demeanor leave little choice but to follow his commands – or face the consequences.
As he tries to impart what wisdom he can with his own two sons, they respond in their own unique ways.
The film builds to a stunning emotional climax and had me in tears until the credits stopped rolling.
Fences is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.
Electrifying – 5 Stars.