“Fences” must be added to the short roster of great American plays that have been made into great American films. The faces of the actors are radiant in their humanity. The characters go right down to the depths, a hallmark of 20th-century theater. Director Denzel Washington captures the rhythms, the poetry and the velocity of playwright August Wilson’s text, and the result is an experience of exuberance and richness.
Washington guides a stunning ensemble to some of the best work of their lives and sets their performances against a physical background that’s mostly real, but with just a hint of lyricism. The neighborhood street has parked 1950s cars receding all the way into the horizon, where we see the smokestacks of the Pittsburgh steel mills, looking like some mid-century dream.
Most of the film takes place in a little concrete backyard, the kind that’s so familiar. Small as it is, it’s a kingdom. The king here is Troy, a scarred and formidable personality, played by Washington. In the 1980s, James Earl Jones made this role his own on the stage, and he was stern and terrifying. Washington, a more affable actor, creates a figure that’s almost as terrifying and just as destructive, but one with a dangerous charm; he’s someone who dominates every room, with threats, with smiles, with invitations to share in the special aura he creates.
There is the essence here of a great man, and in Troy’s past there was once the possibility of great accomplishment. We are told that Troy was one of the best baseball players in the Negro leagues, but he was already 40 years old when baseball integrated, so he never got to know real money or widespread recognition. Instead, he works as a sanitation man, riding the back of the truck with his old friend Bono (a remarkable Stephen Henderson). Washington’s Troy is always aware of his own magnificence, and he delights in it; but his anger is always right beneath the surface.
“FENCES” is a family drama, but in the sense that “King Lear” or “The Oresteia” is a family drama. Troy lives with his wife of almost 20 years (Viola Davis) and a teenage son (Jovan Adepo) that he seems unconsciously to want to destroy. He also has an older son, by another woman, a struggling musician (Russell Hornsby) who craves his approval, but Troy won’t give it. “Fences” doesn’t deal in oracles or in the fate of nations, and yet something in the scale of the language and of the characters suggests something grand and timeless at work through these lives.
Betrayed by a system, Troy betrays himself, so that his talent and brilliance are undermined by a flaw in his relationship to love. Rose, his wife, is the instrument by which Troy’s salvation and damnation are made legible, and Viola Davis gives a staggering performance. A long scene in which she lets loose her fury will go down as one of the profound moments in this year’s cinema, a scene that will be played over and over, and studied and marveled at for years to come.
The supporting cast is made up entirely of great actors. That sounds naive to state it starkly, but that’s what we’re dealing with here. Henderson’s Bono is like a Kent to Washington’s Lear, loving him more than fearing him, aware of his flaws and willing to guide him, but without much hope. The sons, as played by Adepo and Hornsby, are studies in hurt, damaged young men, who are overmatched by this roiling cauldron of a father they can never understand.
Special note should be taken of Mykelti Williamson, as Gabriel, Troy’s younger brother. Poor Gabriel suffered brain damage in the war and now has a childlike demeanor. This kind of character — the holy fool, the seer, with a disability that must be portrayed accurately but that also functions as metaphor — is notoriously difficult to play. It’s an invitation to overact, or to beg for sympathy, or retreat into the ethereal, but Williamson plays it simply and specifically, and it’s beautiful.
Washington directs “Fences” with a shrewd sense of when to plow through text and when to let it breathe. He has performed the play on stage many times and knows it well. He also knows himself well, that the warmth of his own essence works for him and makes Troy worthy of compassion. He knows how to use that, but to calibrate it, too, so that this is no preening actor, but an artist working in two distinct capacities, at the absolute summit of excellence.
If you didn’t know going in, you wouldn’t guess that the lead actor was calling the shots here, such is the sense of ensemble. Still, Washington delivers not only one of the year’s best performances, but one of the best self- directed performances in cinema history.