I’m not sure where to start with this film. But, okay, first a vital piece of information is being missed from the discussion around Fences, and that’s the actor who plays Cory Maxson is British born raised in America, Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers). That’s it. For his outstanding performance alone, we’d like to claim him back thank you. Not quite part of the British talent drain, but if his family had kept him here, who knows if he’d ever have been cast in this role. We thank you Adepo family.
So, after successfully starring in the 2010 award-winning Broadway version, Denzel Washington was compelled to take Fences to the big screen. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, award-winning playwright August Wilson’s simple narrative about the goings on in an average working class African American family is impressive. I call it simple because the story, is simple.
Troy Maxson, is a man in his fifties who works as a trash collector, or bin man. Married to housewife Rose. They have two sons Cory (youngest) a student with aspirations of being a football player and Lyons (older), a man with dreams of being a successful musician. Troy also has an older brother, Gabe who suffered a mental impairment after a World War II injury to the head. There’s also Troy’s best friend Bono, whom he works with, has a laugh with, and who is a regular at Troy’s home for food, drink and one-man audience to Troy’s after work story-telling. It’s a simple tale.
But as this simple tale plays out, and we start to learn each character’s motivations for being. Their issues. Their scars, their flaws, this simple tale evolves into an epic depiction of life as we know it, now, back then and maybe for always. It becomes such a human story.
Troy Maxson has deep angst. He’s a black man who has suffered through having to fend for himself at an early age. Abandoned by his mother; let down by his ill-equipped father. Running into trouble which led him to prison (where he met Bono) and then turning his life around upon release, playing for the Negro Baseball League. But never making it to the Major Baseball league, gives Troy a case of the ‘racisms’, causing him to believe he was passed over – granted that it was during the time of segregation, but leaving no other room for other reasons, for example he may have been too old etc. Thus, here we see the maturation of an angry bitter black man who negatively infects his tiny piece of the world.
I saw Fences the play, in the UK back in 2013 with Sir Lenny Henry as Troy, Tanya Moodie as Rose. Ashley Zhangazha as Cory. The British cast under the direction of the amazing Paulette Randall – who made her own history being the first black, British woman to direct a play at the West End, did respectable justice to the very American story. As a result, nervous expectations of how Fences, which sits so comfortably as a play, with its closed world, lots of words and full characters would translate to the big screen were upon me.
But how Denzel Washington, the man we all agree is one of the finest actors to ever do it, managed to pull this feat off is nothing short of brilliant. That he also effectively plays Troy Maxson, in-between directing the rest of the cast… I have no other word. As mentioned, Fences is wordy. There is a lot of talking, all delivered in strong African-American common vernacular; you have to listen. Every word uttered has relevance. You can’t miss anything. Here Washington’s skills as a director are unquestionable. Working with his cinematographer (Charlotte Bruus Christensen), he keeps the camera expertly on the characters as they navigate between the constricted world of the backyard, the front room, the alleyway… talking.
It’s difficult to not spoil the story because it’s such a simple tale. The play’s been around since the early 80s, so the plot is a Google search away. But for the sake of those of you who, like me enjoy being ‘surprised’ I’m not going to go too deep into what happens. Instead, for me this review is about the importance of the performances. Every single actor in this 2016 film adaptation of Fences, gives their very best.
Stephen McKinley Henderson (Everyday People, New Amsterdam, Jitney) who plays best friend Bono is the first other character we see on screen after Troy. He’s a little older than Troy, so has a worldly comfortable persona about him which you engage with. He’s cute, and believable in the position as Troy’s father figure / best friend. He has that all knowing been there done that, understands his friend’s need to talk… and talk… and drink. Providing his friend that necessary ‘face up to the truth’ counsel which we all need in a friend. Henderson’s Bono represents us the audience listening to Troy.
Lyons played by Russell Hornsby (Grimm, LUV) isn’t on screen much, but does well in his position as the older son who just wants his father to have faith in him. Whilst he doesn’t stick around to suffer Troy’s bitterness, appearing to have moved out early enough to get on with his life how he sees fit. He’s still drawn back to his family home each week to endure the weight of his father’s confusing concoction of scorn & love. Hornsby gives good filler.
I’ve already mentioned the brilliance of Adepo; alongside Troy’s relationship with Rose, the father son dynamic between Cory and Troy is the other important theme. In Cory, Troy sees himself; what he could have been, but in seeing all this potential and freedom in Cory, where other parents would be proud, encouraging and supportive, Troy is jealous. Even though his youngest son is clearly inspired by his father’s sporting legacy, deciding to take on American Football, and carry on the Maxson legend, Troy’s jealousy bears down on Cory. He can’t help but pour pessimistic gloom on everything his son attempts to do. Nothing Cory does is good enough, and in an epic showdown after Troy takes things too far, Adepo, manages to handle his own opposite the Oscar winning actor!
Washington as Troy, we’ve seen Washington act. We’ve seen him in almost every version of human there can be. As a black male actor, Washington has enjoyed a career which hasn’t seen him relegated to third drug dealer on the left. Although folks would rather he won the Oscar for his role as Malcolm X rather than a crooked detective, no one can frown on Washington’s legacy. So, as Troy, there was always going to be the challenge of not seeing pieces of Washington’s former characters acting like Troy. Washington has his isms, facial expressions, his vocal cadence, the way he runs his words and chuckles and smiles, then switches to serious in a hair-second, it’s all there, but as Troy he manages to find something more. He is that black father, that black uncle, that black older brother who is a victim of his existence. Who is so horrible yet charming, who we forgive for their failure that we wouldn’t anyone else. A man whom we hate, love, empathise, pity and hate all over again. Washington brings that.
Finally, Mrs. Viola Davis as Rose. Having the privilege of watching Fences, then sitting through a Q&A with her straight after, was a bit Christmassy. Davis has been called the Meryl Streep of black actresses, and where I don’t like the idea of having a relatable white alternative to anything we do as black folks, I’m not too mad at this comparison. Because Davis, like Meryl is fast becoming that actress we can trust. We know that if Davis is in a film, it’s not unlikely the film will be a good one. Even for those of you who hated The Help – dislikers including Davis herself who recently critiqued the film’s strong ‘white saviour’ theme, even in The Help, Davis was outstanding.
Another thing Davis the actress has managed to cut through is race. Black women; white women, all women, love Davis. She is every woman. Thus, her portrayal of Rose was the casting thing to do. Rose is that woman who has done her very best to live a life she can be proud of. She likes her simple life. She loves her two boys. She loves her man. She loves and tolerates her flawed, over talkative, tall storytelling, reckless charmer, bubbling under the surface with anger, man. Through her gentle goading of Troy when he goes too far with his stories. With her unafraid to speak the truth and challenge him, and then her soothing love which calms him down, Rose is every woman. Davis gives good cry. She also gives good power and effective, yet cutting resolution. When Troy lets Rose down in such epic, and unexpected fashion, we get to see Davis muster all her acting strength and give us every woman who has closed her eyes, pulled up her tights, tightened her apron, and clutched tightly to her O magazine, bible, Koran, daily mantra to just make it through the day and keep her family together. During the Q&A Davis mentioned that Washington is an honest director who told her that what he’s looking for is the absolute truth.
The chemistry between Washington and Davis has obviously been tried and tested during their Fences Broadway pairing. With film being a different beast, it all could have gone horribly wrong. But Davis is absolutely correct. Fences is honest.
A must see for everyone.
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: August Wilson
Cast: Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby
UK release date: February 10th 2016