The most popular play of August Wilson’s century spanning Pittsburgh cycle, Fences, had a long, somewhat eventful journey to the big screen, largely due to Wilson’s insistence that an African-American direct the project. In what marks his third time behind the camera (and his burst in nearly a decade), Denzel Washington–who portrayed the lead in the 2010 Broadway revival–remains true to the play in both style and execution. While Fences might initially feel “barebones,” that is quickly overcome with superb performances from the entire cast, particularly Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, also reprising her role from the 2010 Broadway revival.
In the mid-1950’s, 53-year old garbage collector Troy Maxson (Washington) lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). An ex-Negro League baseball player, Troy harbors great resentment that his years as a player came before Major League Baseball’s dismantling of the color. Even all these years later, Troy frames his explanations of the important and the mundane, using strikes, balls and outs as metaphors.
A born storyteller prone to exaggerate things (a friend compares him to Uncle Remus), Troy holds court in his backyard on Friday evenings. He’s usually joined by longtime friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) where they share a bottle of gin. Rose is alternately amused and exasperated by her husband’s declarations.
Troy and Rose seem content with their lives, but it not long before cracks begin to appear in the happy facade. Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), got “half his head blown off” in World War II, leaving him a delusional, childlike man wandering the streets of the neighborhood, convinced he’s the Angel Gabriel, waiting for St. Peter to open the gates of heaven. Further weighing on Troy–the settlement Gabriel received from the government, is the only reason he and Rose own a home.
Troy’s relationship with his son Cory is rocky at best. A football prodigy, the boy has a chance to play in college. However, Troy is so bitter about his own past in athletics he refuses to sign the paperwork allowing Cory to go to college. Instead, he forces his son to quit the high school team and work at the local grocery store. Troy also has an adult son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous relationship, who often shows up on pay day looking for a loan.
While initially it’s easy to feel for Troy given the hardship in his life, it soon becomes clear that he has brought a lot of it on himself. A man with a huge personality, Troy is incapable of seeing his own flaws. Yet his family, are a direct reflection of the impact of the flaws. One of the most powerful moments of any film in 2016 occurs as Rose must finally come to terms with just how much Troy’s selfish has cost her and her family. There’s little doubt in my mind that Viola Davis’ emotional monologue was what won her the Best Supporting Actress.
August Wilson wrote some of the best dialogue of the 20th century and it’s a real pleasure to watch two talents like Denzel Washington and Viola Davis delivering it. Both actors ‘lay it all out’ in service to their characters, bringing a rawness to the proceedings that doesn’t feel anything but real. Wisely, Washington seems to have taken a mostly “hands off” approach to directing here. Keeping his stated promise to stay true to Wilson’s original work, Washington keeps things largely contained to the Maxson house and backyard. While I’ll admit the final shot doesn’t work as well as it should have, taken as a whole, Fences is a master class in dialogue and acting.
Presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Paramount has provided a solid 1080p transfer. Sharpness is quite good, with only a few moments of slight softness throughout. The print is clean, with no apparent flaws. The golden-brown color palette offers rich hues, while blacks appear appropriately dense. Shadow delineation is solid, offering a nice level of clarity.
Given the dialogue driven nature of the film, the DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack isn’t given a lot to do. The snippets of Marcelo Zarvos’ score sound pleasing when they pop up, giving a hint of the tracks true surround capabilities. Ambient sounds are clear. Most importantly, dialogue is clean and concise.
English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Expanding the Audience from Stage to Screen (HD, 8:33) August Wilson’s widow Constanza Romero Wilson, director/actor Denzel Washington, editor Hughes Winborn, producer Todd Black, production designer David Gropman, costume designer Sharen Davis, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, composer Marcelo Zarvos, and actors Viola Davis, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and others discuss the adaptation, edititing, sets and location, etc.
- The Company of Fences (HD, 9:17) Washington, Williamson, Davis, Henderson, Black, Leon, Wilson, Hornsby, and actor Jovan Adepo discuss the dialogue and their performances.
- Building Fences (HD, 6:56) The cast is back, ostensibly to discuss Denzel Washington’s directing style, but really they just sing his praises.
- Playing the Part (HD, 6:57) The cast is back to discuss the part of Rose. It quickly turns into a fan letter to Viola Davis.
- August Wilson’s Hill District (HD, 6:25) The cast discusses shooting the film in Pittsburgh.
- Digital HD.
Movie title: Fences (2016)
Director(s): Denzel Washington
Actor(s): Denzel Washington Viola Davis , Mykelti Williamson Russell Hornsby Stephen Henderson Jovan Adepo