Fences could be a landmark film in the history of African-American cinema. It is a period piece. There is no sex or gun-related violence in it. Yet it has made $50 million to date at the US box office – twice its production budget – and it hasn’t completed its run yet.
Set in 1956, it is based on a 1983 play by the late August Wilson (1945-2005), the sixth of his ten play ‘Pittsburgh cycle’ that concluded with ‘Radio Golf’ in 2005, completed weeks before his death. Each of Wilson’s ten plays is set in a different decade of the 20th Century and offers a state of life of the black American in the USA.
It also marks its star, Denzel Washington’s third film as director. Washington might choose commercial material as an actor – his most recent film was the remake of The Magnificent Seven – but as a director he tackles risky subjects, not exactly out of his comfort zone, but not the stuff that you would see studio executives hurrying to green-light either. His debut, Antwone Fisher (2002) focused on a troubled sailor (Derek Luke) receiving treatment (Washington cast himself as his psychiatrist) whilst his 2007 follow-up, The Great Debaters, followed an African American college debating team in the 1930s, with Washington as an English professor who drives them on to face Harvard in the national championship.
Troy Maxson, the film’s protagonist, is a terrific role for Washington – he has played it on stage – and he steps up to the plate to deliver an acting home run; the baseball metaphors are entirely appropriate, Troy was once a player. At the start, we see him on a Friday – payday – talking to his best buddy, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) on the back of a garbage truck. Troy could be in trouble. He has raised with his employer a thorny question: why can’t he drive the truck instead of just being a bin man? At the end of the weekend, he could be facing the sack. As he hands over his weekly pay packet – $76.20 – to his wife Rose (Viola Davis, reprising her stage performance opposite Washington) he is bugged by Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his musician son from another relationship, for a $10 loan; Troy prickles when Lyons calls him ‘Pop’. Troy has been shaped by the school of tough love – we later learn that he faced down his abusive father, aged 14, and ran away from home. He refuses Lyons the loan (why should he do so, when Lyons shirks work), only for Rose to make it on his behalf. Troy wants his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) to fix the fence with him and disapproves of his desire to earn a football scholarship; Cory should keep his job at the A & P, a local store. Bono is concerned by Troy’s interest in a local woman. ‘One drink’ is ‘polite’ – ‘several’ is ‘eyeing her up’; Bono tries to convince him that Rose does not deserve to be cheated upon.
Much of the drama is set in Troy’s backyard. The incomplete fence represents a family that is still open for others to join – or to leave. Although Troy extols the virtues of hard work, the house that he lives in was purchased with a $3,000 settlement his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) received from the army, after he returned from war with a metal plate in his head. Gabe lived with Troy, Rose and Cory until recently, but then went to live with a neighbour down the street. Gabe wears a trumpet round his neck held by a piece of string. He calls to St Paul, clearly disturbed and unable to live independently. Strikingly, Troy, Rose and Cory accept him for who he is, partly out of pity for his war injury.
The drama comes from a clash between Troy and Cory over the latter’s ambition, coupled with the consequences of Troy’s relationship with another woman and the result of his request to his employer. Although there are some brief moments outside the house, the film preserves its stage origins. Washington wisely focuses on the contradictions inherent in Troy, trying to better himself but repeating his own father’s mistakes in not allowing his son to follow his chosen path. In a telling exchange, Cory asks Troy why he doesn’t like him and Troy explains that he doesn’t have to; he is obliged to care for him, that’s all. There is a recurring line about the ‘crooked and the straight’ – Troy embodies both good and bad qualities. He distrusts the praise lavished on his son by his school because he himself was let down. Troy wants Cory to be prepared.
Washington’s performance is commanding, allowing the audience to see the ‘crooked and the straight’ in Troy, where he is completely mistaken and where he has a point. He yearns to be free of his own contradictions and explains that he has found a space where he can be himself. Opposite him, Davis comes into her own in the second half of the film, as Rose confronts some of the less savoury aspects of her husband’s behaviour.
The ideal of a ‘self-made man’ in the 1950s is illusory; achievement is based on a confluence on elements. The drama sets this out explicitly. Although racially specific, it transcends its community and explores a universal theme, the tension between what parents want for their children and what they want from themselves. The lack of confidence and awareness of injustice is racially specific. Troy talks about how, as a baseball player, his batting average was twice that of his white team mates, yet he was benched – unable to play – twice as much as them. Wilson doesn’t dwell on explicit acts of racism rather the mindset that it produces, which is just as defeating.
You really get to know Troy’s yard – the production design by David Gropman embodies a lived-in space, from the much hammered and soiled baseball attached to a rope for swinging practice to the broken second floor window, the product (we imagine) of one of Troy’s more extravagant – and destructive – swings; the window is a memento to his prowess but also a testament to his frustration. The ‘gin Friday’ ritual is well-worn, demarcated by Rose joining the men, Troy, Bono and Lyons with her cup of tea. The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train) comes into its own in the final scene with a grace note as one of the characters unexpectedly comes good.
Fences isn’t just an acting showcase and a preservation of a near-perfect production of one of August Wilson’s best plays. It has something to say to people – men, especially – when they are totally consumed by their own righteousness, no matter what the cost or what they ask of others. This is a theme as relevant today as it has ever been. The finale is quietly moving.
Its box-office success could herald more screen adaptations of Wilson’s ten play cycle – only The Piano Lesson had been filmed previously. Moreover, it could signify the start of a more considered African-American cinema that looks more deeply at the psyche of its characters rather than just focusing on racism as the only determinant.