By Thomas Infante
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Based on the original play written in 1983 by August Wilson, “Fences” is the definition of a modern classic. The play won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and enjoyed a run on Broadway, where it won several Tony Awards, including the award for best play in 1987. While James Earl Jones played the original leading man, later productions featured Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson.
After a successful revival of the play, Washington announced his plans to direct and star in a film adaptation of “Fences,” which was released in December 2016.
Washington’s experience portraying Troy is evident in his emotive acting. As a middle-aged black man living in 1950s Philadelphia, Troy works tirelessly as a garbage man in order to support his family. Years earlier, Troy was a star baseball player in the Negro League, but was too old to play professionally by the time baseball became fully integrated.
His bitterness about this strongly influences his philosophy, especially toward his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is a good football player and hopes to use his abilities to get a college scholarship. Troy considers it a waste of time because of his past experiences and refuses to accept that his son may have better opportunities than he had at his age.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is Rose (Viola Davis), Troy’s wife and Cory’s mother. Davis recently won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her performance as Rose, who is a dutiful wife and mother constantly trying to maintain peace in a household with several strong personalities. She listens to Troy yammer on about how he could play baseball better than Jackie Robinson, while trying to support Cory’s decision to play football.
There are other frequent visitors to the Maxson household who add depth to Troy’s situation. His friend and drinking buddy Bono (Stephen Henderson) provides Troy with moral guidance.
There is also Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s brother, who suffered a head injury while fighting in World War II and now believes he is the angel Gabriel. Gabe carries around a broken trumpet and regularly causes a ruckus when he hallucinates “fighting off hellhounds” that he sees in the street. Troy, who often acts as Gabe’s caretaker, is deeply affected by Gabe’s condition and resists committing him to an institution because he feels that his brother deserves his freedom after serving his country.
The setting, like the characters, is very realistic. Troy lives in a small house in a low-class neighborhood, yet there is a vibrant sense of community. Kids cheerfully play stickball in the street while adults — too poor to afford a car — walk jauntily to and from work while discussing their lives.
Troy spends much of his free time in his small backyard where he is gradually building a fence around his property. Troy’s larger-than-life personality is only accentuated by the meagerness of his physical possessions. We constantly hear Troy recount fanciful tales of his abusive father, his time in prison and his heroic athletic feats, but the only goal he has left is to finish the fence around his 50 square feet of yard.
“Fences” is a character drama like no other. Special effects in this film are practically nonexistent — the focus is largely on the characters themselves. The plot is conveyed by dialogue between the characters who all have motivations and emotions realistic enough to be relatable. When the usually proud Troy admits to his wife, “I’ve been standing in the same spot for 18 years,” you can hear the pain and disappointment in his voice.
Troy, while deeply flawed, tries to do what he considers to be the right thing for his family — even if they don’t always agree with him. Washington did an excellent job both starring and directing “Fences,” and the result is a film that is both faithful to the original play and realistically compelling in its own right.