The buzz about the 89th Academy Awards nominations is swirling strong around actor/producer/director Denzel Washington’s theatrical version of August Wilson’s award-winning play “Fences.”
Set to open on Christmas Day, the story follows the life of a charismatic, deeply flawed inner-city patriarch whose bitter regret smashes everything around him, including his loving family. The screenplay is written by the late August Wilson and based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, written in 1983, which premiered on Broadway in 1987.
The story is set in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, in a lower-middle-class Black section of the city. The central character, Troy Maxson (Washington), is a larger-than-life but deeply cynical man who works hard in a dull job, ruminating on his failed opportunities to play professional baseball.
Troy works as a trash collector. We are introduced to him living inside a perpetual loop of Friday paydays, when the weekends and a drink are the only things to give him some temporary joy.
Friday starts with him sharing a pint of gin with his seasoned co-worker, Bono (Stephen Henderson), a centered man. For 18 years, Troy’s handed over his pay envelope to his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), to whom he is devoted. In their loving banter, it’s easy to see that they share an understanding.
Troy appears to go along with the status quo, but he’s just ambitious enough to ask his supervisor why Pittsburgh has no Black sanitation drivers (an explosive question that winds up securing him a promotion to be the city’s first).
Wilson’s dialogue is superlative—soulful, authentic and timely and almost musical, sharing a cadence that’s part of most urban cities. Under Washington’s direction and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography, there is no wasted moment, no empty frame.
Once a professional baseball player, a forgotten star of the Negro Leagues, Troy is now filled with bitter memories, lamenting that he was a generation before Jackie Robinson.
A true hater, he throws jabs at new Black players and at Robinson himself while sizing up his own record to prove, statistically, that he’s better than all of them. The gin-soaked talk is rooted in an honest p.o.v. of a vicious racist past. All that’s left for Troy is a gigantic ego that doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the success he was denied and that, sadly, includes his teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has an interview scheduled with a college football recruiter. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his son to get a college education and to change his fate, but Troy crushes his son’s dream under the weight of his own festering heartbreak.
Davis’ Rose is a revelation. She knows her way around the character’s core, having played the role onstage for 13 weeks in the 2010 Broadway production (along with Washington, Mykelti Williamson, Stephen McKinley and Russell Hornsby). There are characters that bring sunshine, including Lyons (Hornsby),Troy’s grown son from a previous relationship, an easygoing musician who wants only to live in his music. Then there’s Troy’s brother, Gabe (Williamson), who returned from World War II with a metal plate in his head and half his wits. Later we discover that it was Gabe’s $3,000 disability payout that allowed Troy to purchase his modest home, and that guilty energy is coated on every brick of the house.
Williamson does a heart-tugging turn of acting in creating the layers that make Gabe. Though his mental capacity was greatly diminished, his spiritual awakening was sharpened, allowing him to pick up on things most can’t see, hear, feel or even comprehend.
Troy thinks society will never change for the Black man—a self-fulfilling prophecy or an uncomfortable truth?
Wilson’s play is a reflection of the current atmosphere of hate—unearthed by the ugly supporters of Donald Trump—which was never erased, only hidden, and therefore “Fences” hits us in the metaphorical solar plexus with its relevance.
“Fences” is a Paramount Pictures release of a Bron Creative, Macro Media, Scott Rudin Productions, Paramount Pictures production. Producers are Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington (executive) and Charles King. The film is directed by Denzel Washington. The screenplay was written by August Wilson. The film’s stars are Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney.
The 89th Oscars will be held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, and bets are on “Fences” to walk away with at least one award that night, making August Wilson’s Troy Maxson proud.