It’s great when a stage adaptation still feels like a play. That’s what Denzel Washington did with his masterfully crafted “Fences.”
Based on August Wilson’s award-winning play, Washington stars in and directs the movie about a tormented man dealing with familial and race issues in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Washington reprises the role of Troy Maxson, made famous by James Earl Jones with his 1987 stage performance. It was also a role for which Washington himself won a Tony Award in 2010.
Maxson is a sanitation worker troubled by the fact that, despite being in his 50s, he still has to work on the back of the truck, tossing people’s rubbish into the vehicle’s hopper. Only white employees got to drive the truck, something Maxson challenges and is faced with the possibility of being fired because of it. His pending review with his union’s board is prevalent throughout.
Maxson also has a fractured home life with a 34-year-old son struggling financially as an aspiring musician and a teenage son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as an athlete.
Maxson played professional baseball in the Negro leagues and is bitter he never got his shot in Major League Baseball. He views professional sports as overtly racist and will not allow his son, Cory, to meet with a college football recruiter.
Viola Davis gives a stunning performance as Maxson’s emotionally torn wife, Rose, who wants to support both her son and husband, but is caught in the crossfire. Like Washington in 2010, Davis also won a Tony for her performance as Rose Maxson.
Maxson has his own inner demons to battle and is both antihero and antagonist. Washington portrays the tragic character beautifully. Maxson is a foul-mouthed alcoholic and Washington gives a performance that reminds you of his Oscar-winning role of Alonzo Harris in “Training Day.”
With a small cast that includes Stephen Henderson as Maxson best friend, Bono, and Mykelti Williamson as Maxson’s simple-minded brother, Gabriel, you might not see a better-acted movie this year.
For those who enjoy live theatre, Washington’s “Fences” will take you there. You can see the blocking, imagine the set changes and put yourself in the front of the house as a member of the audience. The only thing missing is the final curtain call.
Wilson wrote “Fences” in 1983, but it took four years to get it produced. It became an instant Broadway hit and won the Pulitzer Prize and a few Tony awards in 1987. Washington’s film could be looking at a few Oscars in 2017.