August Wilson’s Fences is as powerful a film as I have ever witnessed. I’ve wept in exactly three films in the course of my life: The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, and now Fences. The prior two films were released in 1983 and 1995, respectively, and both were directed by Steven Spielberg. The fact that it has been 21 years since a film produced personal waterworks for me – coupled with the fact that only one director had made it rain – has been a source of pride throughout most of my adult life. Yesterday, my pride was totally obliterated, and at 48, I eclipsed my combined precipitation volume at ages 15 and 27 respectively as Denzel Washington, one of my all-time favorite actors, became the second director to humble me in such an embarrassing fashion. In fact, if Spielberg produced raindrops, Washington created a thunderstorm. As a fully grown man, I was finally reduced to whispering the words I’ve heard many times from my companions on movie dates over the years: “Don’t look at me.”
For the sake of transparency, I must disclose that I have portrayed Troy Maxson (Denzel’s character) in two separate stage productions of Fences, and have been cast to play Bono in a third in early 2017. Fences is deeply ingrained in my heart, but if anything, that fact would bias me against the film even more, had it missed the mark. Instead, I left feeling that I had seen Fences for the first time, and that I had been utterly transformed by the experience. Washington’s interpretation stays completely true to the original, adding next to nothing to Wilson’s original dialogue, but it raises the stakes in a way that arguably restricted the stage play; it changes the scenery, at critical times in the story, and takes the audience places we could previously only travel in our imagination. While those familiar with the play watch Fences unfold in its entirety in the yard outside of the Maxson household, filmgoers get to experience the ride on the back of the garbage truck with Troy and Bono, their daily walk along the beaten path to and from work, the neighborhood where Gabe is tormented by hell hounds and gawked at by nosy neighbors, Troy’s workplace, Taylor’s (the ominous hangout spot that lures Troy into trouble), the church where Rose finds salvation, and perhaps most importantly, the inside of the Maxson home itself, which remained a mystery to theatergoers despite its proximity.
It is no secret that Washington has fought and lobbied to bring Fences to the big screen for years. Wilson’s vision was always for the film version of Fences to be directed by a Black director, and none would have proven as fit as Denzel Washington to helm the project. Aside from his genius as a director, Washington’s portrayal of Troy Maxson is masterful, to say the least. He reprises his Tony award winning role in a way that reiterates his dominance as the Troy of all Troys (no offense, James Earl Jones). Denzel perfectly captures the full range of Troy’s complex, multifaceted personality that causes us to alternately love and loathe him, and sometimes do both at the same time. Of Washington’s cast mates, all except for Jovan Adepo (Corey) and Saniyya Sidney (Raynell) reprised their Broadway roles from the Tony winning play for the film adaptation. Mykelti Williamson proves to be a scene stealer as Gabriel, Troy’s mentally challenged brother who alternately exacerbates and alleviates the tension between Troy and Rose. Russell Hornsby is flawless as Lyons, Troy’s elder son from a previous relationship, who seems to have mastered the art of dealing with his father’s unpredictable temperament while maintaining the delicate balance of their near-volatile bond. Stephen McKinley Henderson is amazing as the wise, docile, jovial Bono, Troy’s best friend and faithful follower who knows when to gently yet assertively assume the voice of Troy’s conscience, and when to back away and let Troy be Troy. Some of the strongest performances are given by Adepo as Corey, the son who goes from pining for his father’s approval to defying his authority and despising his very existence, and Sidney as young Raynell who, despite her relatively limited screen time, steals not only the show, but the hearts of viewers with her winsome portrayal as the youngest member of the Maxson clan, who proves to be a blessing instead of a curse to her family, despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances. In case you were wondering, it was the emergence of Raynell, of all things in this film, that evoked the aforementioned waterworks.
Still, it was Viola Davis’ stellar portrayal of Rose that gave Fences its power. This is perhaps Davis’ strongest career performance to date, and that is saying a lot for the Tony and Oscar winner who is literally famous for her ability to capture and convey emotion like few if any others ever have. Rose proves not only to be the glue of the Maxson family, but the anchor of the film itself. We feel what Rose feels throughout the film from start to finish. She embodies not only our palpable disdain for Troy, but ultimately our undeniable love for him as well. While the men work on building a fence to surround the house, it is Rose who truly labors to make sure the home she built remains secure.
Fences is a transformative cinematic experience worthy of the highest of accolades. Its most distinguished honor, in my book, however, is the fact that it succeeded in making a grown man cry. I thought, as Troy thought, that “I ain’t got no tears; I done spent them.”
Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences clearly proved me wrong.
Fences is now playing in movie theaters nationwide.