One would expect any movie that has Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in it to be good, if not great. They are both two of the best working actors in Hollywood, and when you add a classic August Wilson play (which they starred in on Broadway in 2010) to the mix, you can’t go wrong. Still, Fences managed to surpass my expectations by leaps and bounds.
In a way, the story answers the question that Langston Hughes asked in the legendary poem, “Harlem.” What happens to a dream deferred? In the case of all of the main characters in Fences, particularly Troy Maxson who is played by Denzel Washington, the disappointment manifests itself in some seriously damaging ways. That damage not only impacts Troy, but all of the people around him.
The film starts off cheerful enough. We see Troy coming home from his job as a garbageman on payday, throwing back a bottle of gin with his good friend and co-worker, Bono (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson). Things are pleasant between Troy and his wife, who is played by Viola Davis. Rose lightly pokes fun at Troy for his extravagant stories about everything from how they met to his claims that he wrestled with the devil and won. But behind every story is an obvious bitterness. When Troy sees his disabled brother, a veteran played by Mykelti Williams, he’s reminded of what he hasn’t accomplished for himself. Troy had the talent to be one of the greats in baseball, but that talent wasn’t enough to get him far. Therefore, he spends a lot of the time reminding everyone (including his oldest son, Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby) of how hard he works and of the importance of doing the same if they want to get anywhere in this world.
So when his son Cory (played by Jovan Adepo) garner’s the attention of a college scout for his talents in football, Troy isn’t happy. He warns his son that his attention would be better focused on working his part-time job and preparing to learn a trade — a skill that no one can take away from him the way his baseball dreams were snatched. When Cory goes against his father’s wishes, that’s when it feels as though the tone of the film changes. From then on, the playful moments decrease, bad decisions are made and a major secret is revealed that impacts everyone within Troy’s reach. The pain from his past, from his unfulfilled dreams and the hard lessons he’s learned from them that he’s determined to impress upon his family become the center of everything. Troy, Rose and Cory inevitably feel trapped within the home and the fences Troy builds around them, haunted by what could have been.
Aside from the ugly reality of what happens when your dreams don’t pan out, a major theme analyzed in Fences that relates to the outcome of our lives is how we’re impacted by our relationships with our parents and what we inherit from them. Maybe Troy’s life would have panned out differently had he actually felt loved by his father and didn’t have to run off when he was 14 to live a troublesome young adulthood. Maybe he could have been a better father, a less selfish husband and a happier person. But as we learn from all of the characters, particularly Cory, who struggles with the realization that he’s more like Troy than he thinks by the end of the film, that we can’t undo the past. We can’t choose our parents. We can’t choose our pain. What we can do, is learn from the mistakes they made and that we make and be better. Such is life. As both Troy and Lyons say in the film and play, “You got to take the crookeds with the straights.”
As expected, the performances in this film are terrific. No one disappoints in the cast, especially Washington and Davis, who grab your attention immediately and keep it for the entire 138 minutes with the help of some truly thought-provoking, humorous, and at times, soul-stirring dialogue. Washington also does a great job as director of the film, making a beautiful Philly home that’s actually a good size feel like such a confined, often suffocating place. Put those amazing performances, impeccable writing and great direction together, and you have a true gem of a film that truly does justice to August Wilson’s iconic play.
Fences was released in theaters today.