Stage play now in film

It is Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy (Denzel Washington) and his friend Bono empty trash cans into the back of a truck. It is Friday, and Troy wonders aloud why it is only white men who drive the trucks, while the black men are the ones handling the garbage. He raises the issue in hopes of becoming the first black driver. Later that afternoon, Troy and Bono sit at the back of his house talking about life, and we meet Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis). It is clear she loves him, and it seems like they have a good life together, but it isn’t long before the cracks in the veneer become visible.

Troy goes back and forth between two emotional extremes, dutiful hard-nosed caretaker and self-absorbed hurting man.

Fences is adapted from the August Wilson play and is directed by Washington. Washington and Davis, who starred in the stage version six years ago, are equally amazing in this film version. The stage roots of Fences are exposed in the poetic language, the cadence of delivery, the limited staging with minimal sets, and the use of very little action. These don’t hinder the narrative, but they do sometimes seem to lower the emotional impact of the story. Davis, despite such limitations, pours out her raw feelings, which hit a climax near the end of the film.

Troy goes back and forth between two emotional extremes, dutiful hard-nosed caretaker and self-absorbed hurting man. This vacillation creates havoc in the relationships that surround him. His brother Gabriel, who was injured in the war, wanders the streets with a trumpet, imagining he is the angel who announce that Peter is opening the gates to heaven. Troy tries to help him and keep him from being institutionalized, while at the same time using some of Gabriel’s money to buy the house they live in.

Disappointment haunts Troy. He was a star in the former Negro Baseball Leagues, but because of racism never got a chance to play in the majors. He dwells on what could have been and the subsequent loss of his dream. When Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, comes to ask for a loan, Troy seems to enjoy making him beg for the money, denigrating the dream his son has of being a jazz musician. But the real anger is reserved for his son Cory, who has recruiters offering him the possibility of playing football in college. Troy refuses to sign the papers, forcing Cory to quit the football team and work at the local grocery store. Washington plays the role so well that we can’t tell if the motive is bitterness from his own experience or wisdom about the way the world works for athletes with black skin.

Troy demands respect from his sons and shows no mercy when they step out of line. Troy preaches that you must do your duty and take care of your family, but he abandons what might be perceived as his most important duties because of his own inner needs. His selfish desires lay waste to the loving relationship he has with Rose. She survives, but only by sheer will.

Troy throughout the whole film is building a fence but never seems to make much progress. Rose wants the fence, and we begin to understand it is to keep people in, to keep those she loves close, while Troy sees the fence as a trap. The fence is a metaphor for their life together. Troy feels trapped by his job, by the crushing disappointment of his lost dream, by his marriage to Rose, by his duty to Cory. Rose, on the other hand, exposes with every effort the desire to keep the family together, to be a refuge for all of them.

When the full import of Troy’s selfishness hits, Rose discovers the challenge that she will have to live with. She chooses not to punish the innocent, but seems to fence in her heart to protect herself from Troy. The ending jumps several years into the future and offers limited resolution. Gabriel does finally blow his trumpet, so maybe the gate of the final fence is opened for Troy.

Washington seems to embody the role, but Davis is absolutely amazing as she journeys from stubborn love to a ferocious anger that pushes viewers into their seats. The movie is well worth seeing, even though it occasionally seems to be fenced in by its theater heritage and never fully engages its cinematic possibilities.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.