The cinema year gone by was extraordinary for the richness of offerings centred on the African-American experience. Several of these films share a world once fenced off, notably Moonlight (2016), Loving (2016), and Hidden Figures (2016). The quality of these films is remarkable and they reflect wider cultural changes that have been underway for some time. The adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences (2016) is another important contribution to this growing body of cinematic work. Its power comes from superb acting that weaves together a unique domestic narrative with themes of universal relevance.
The sparse plot is framed around a set of domestic vignettes that are found in any family, regardless of colour. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a jovial, larger than life, might-have-been-famous baseball player who works at the dirty end of a garbage truck. Both his sporting ambitions and desire for promotion have been stymied by racial discrimination, so sport and work are recurring metaphors. His devoted and tolerant wife Rose (Viola Davis) is the peacemaker between Troy and his two sons. Young Cory (Jovan Adepo) is keen to pursue his own sporting ambitions but is blocked by Troy. Older son Lyons is a musician who drops in every payday to ask Troy for money. Scenes of father and son conflict recur to the bitter end, punctuated by the impacts of Troy’s infidelity. A brain-damaged brother Gabe enters the stage regularly to speak non sequiturs with lyrical messages, like a court jester offering snippets of garbled wisdom. Troy desperately wants to assert masculine dignity but the world of the 1950s had no respect or place for people of his colour. Without respect he is just “a black man who has two strikes against you before you’re even born”. Life is stacked against men like Troy, but worse without a woman like Rose.
It is easy to see this as a filmed play rather than a play adapted to film. The wide-frame setting turns Troy’s backyard into a place where he holds court within his kingdom, where fences are for keeping in and locking out. The colour palette evokes an era of rich vibrant tones that reflect African-American heritage punctuated with rhythm and blues musical themes. Troy and Rose are the quintessential black American strugglers forgotten by history and ignored by the newly rising racial consciousness of the times. The generation that followed were promised better lives while they were left with the crumbs of the American dream, a dream that belonged to white people.
The two stars push their performances to the limit: Denzel doesn’t play but is angry, conflicted, unfulfilled; Viola is strong, altruistic, hopeful of a better life. Their performance duet is a memorable tour-de-force. Troy has spent his life both building and fighting fences, but what he most craves comes too late. This film feels like live theatre with intimacy of characterisation and dense lyrical dialogue delivered with authenticity and depth. It is classic powerhouse drama.
Director: Denzel Washington
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo