August Wilson’s “Fences” is one of the great American plays of the 20th century — filled with memorable characters, deep with poetically rich dialogue, equally infused with moments of almost unbearable heartbreak and spiritually uplifting humanity.
The 1987 Broadway production of “Fences” won multiple Tonys. The 2010 edition, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, won Tonys for best revival of a play, best actor for Washington and best actress for Davis.
Now comes the movie adaptation, with Washington and Davis (and supporting players Stephen McKinley Henderson and Mykelti Williamson) reprising their stage roles and Washington behind the camera as director of a feature for the third time (after “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007.)
What works so well on the stage doesn’t always pack the same punch through the more naturalistic filter of the film experience, and there are times when “Fences” the movie feels stagey and over the top. But once you settle in and get comfortable with the speechifying and the cadence and rhythm of the prose poetry, the performances by the main players are a wonder to behold.
Set mostly in the mid-1950s, “Fences” is in some ways an African-American companion piece to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in that it focuses on a tragically dysfunctional family with a bitter patriarch nearing the end of the road; his loving and supportive wife, and their children, not all of whom have found their own path.
Washington is a commanding presence as Troy, a longtime sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh who is pushing to go from the back of the truck to the position of driver, a relatively cushy job in that you stay behind the wheel all day and you don’t have to sling garbage.
On Friday evenings when the last shift of the week is over, Troy and his best friend Bono (Henderson) embrace the freedom of the weekend by heading to Troy’s backyard, where they pass the bottle of gin back and forth while Troy’s wife Rose (Davis) prepares dinner and basks in the glow of Troy’s charisma and his declarations of undying love for his wife of so many years.
Troy and Rose seem to be blessed and content — but it doesn’t take long before myriad cracks poison their way through the happy façade.
Troy’s brother Gabriel (Williamson) suffered severe brain damage in World War II and is now a sad, delusional, childlike wild card roaming the streets of the neighborhood. Gabriel believes he’s the Angel Gabriel, hoping St. Peter will open the gates of heaven.
Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a struggling jazz musician with a penchant for showing up at Troy’s house on payday, so he can hit up Troy for a quick loan. Troy takes a sadistic delight in making Lyons beg for the cash.
Troy’s teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is a football prodigy with dreams of playing in college. But Troy, a former Negro League baseball star who played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and never got a shot at the big leagues, is so bitter about his own athletic experience he refuses to sign the paperwork for Cory to go to college and forces his son to quit the high school team and find work.
That’s just the half of it. Suffice to say that while we initially feel for Troy and all he’s endured in his hardscrabble life, we come to see how nearly everything that goes sour for his family is of Troy’s doing. The moment when Rose is forced to face the full measure of Troy’s selfishness leads to arguably the most powerful monologue in any movie of 2016, with Viola Davis pretty much sewing up the Oscar for best supporting actress — and deservedly so.
Washington’s direction is solid but nothing special. He finds a few ways to expand the adaptation beyond the constraints of the stage play — but all of the most effective scenes take place in the house and the backyard.
The closing scenes could have been tightened — it’s a very long goodbye — and some of the messages and symbolism could have been delivered in a more nuanced fashion. The final shot is a tough sell.
What works: the brilliant dialogue, and the raw intensity of the performances. It’s a privilege to watch Washington and Davis lay it all on the line.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Denzel Washington and written by August Wilson from his play. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references). Running time: 139 minutes. Opens Sunday at local theaters.