When August Wilson’s play Fences premiered at Yale Repertory Theater in May 1985, two years before its Broadway debut, Frank Rich reviewed it for the New York Times:
For the slum dwellers of “Fences,” scraping out a hard-scrabble existence amid the Eisenhower boom, there is nothing to sing about. There is only the rage, bottled up and festering, waiting for release in a cataclysm still to come.
That cataclysm would arrive in the 1960's riots that set America's unofficially segregated Northern cities aflame. “Fences” is pointedly set on the deceptively quiet eve of that catharsis — and, as befits its historical moment, its tone is both anxious and muted.
The play — the sixth of 10 in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” — went on to win a Pulitzer and four Tonys, including Best Play and Best Actor for James Earl Jones, who played Troy Maxson, the 53-year-old garbage collector in Pittsburgh with a boulder-size chip on his shoulder.
Fences has been mounted several times since, including a revival on Broadway in 2010 starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis that garnered another three Tonys (Best Revival and one for each of its leads). Now, with an adaptation written by Wilson (who died in 2005), Fences has made its way to the big screen, with Washington and Davis reprising their roles and Washington himself directing.
Such a hefty film was always fated for awards season, not just because of the subject matter — which feels eerily contemporary in 2016 — but also because plays adapted for the screen almost always feel a bit heavy and static, unsuitable for the breezy summer months.
As a film, Fences is itself a bit static, a serious movie most interested in showcasing its stars’ outstanding performances. But its story also feels fresh, as if it were written to slot itself into the concerns of 2016: Questions of race and privilege, agency, and responsibility are all here.
Fences is about a patriarch and the people around him
Every day, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) rides on the back of the garbage truck with his old friend and fellow collector Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). He comes home to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), a rising star athlete who’s being scouted to play college football.
Troy is the sort of man who (as Rose puts it) fills every room in the house with his presence: funny, charming, full of tall tales, with a will that’s a force of nature. He played baseball when he was younger but aged out of relevance before the major leagues began drafting black players, and he’s still bitter about it. This bitterness serves as a kind of cipher to Troy for his life: He could have been something, but circumstances kept conspiring to get in his way. He sees this, along with his hardscrabble early life and a series of other occurrences, as strikes that will add up to an out someday.
But Troy isn’t a defeatist, either; he comes out swinging on just about everything. He’s full of laughter when he’s happy and a frightening presence when he’s not. He’s in the process of becoming the first black driver in the sanitation department (never mind that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, and can’t read). He’s determined that Cory won’t play football, but will instead get a job and pull himself up by his own bootstraps. He refuses to lend money to his son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz musician whose shows he refuses to see. He cares for his younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who has the mental capacity of a child after suffering a war injury.
Troy loves Rose, but in his mind her concerns are ancillary to his: He won’t be dependent on anyone, and his life is his own to determine and direct as he will, while she sometimes will just need to understand that.
Fences is composed primarily of people (mostly Troy) talking in the backyard, in the living room, on the front porch — you’d know it was originally a play even if you weren’t told. That staginess can seriously hamper dramatic effect in lesser efforts, but Fences is buoyed by Washington and Davis: Their gale-force performances will blow audiences against the back of their seats, and they’re further supported by a strong cast, especially Henderson. The word tour de force is an overused critical cliché, but it’s the only appropriate one here.
Fences feels timeless — but also deeply bound to a specific time
But there’s more to the movie than its actors. As a story, Fences works on two levels: as a sort of timeless parable about a man fighting death, and as a personal experience tightly tied to a distinct time and place.
Fences’ characters draw on figures with roots more ancient than the 1950s, stretching back into the realm of myth. Troy is certain that death is not an event that awaits him so much as a person who will come up to the house someday and finally take him for good. He describes the grim reaper, even hollers at him out a window.
That Troy’s brother — whose brain was blown half away, leaving him impaired — is named Gabriel is also significant: Not only does he operate as a sort of wise fool (in the traditional sense) in the story, revealing truths about other characters that wouldn’t surface otherwise, but he carries a literal trumpet like the angel Gabriel, named in the Bible as God’s messenger.
Some critics, too, have compared Troy to King Lear, raging at his family, pushing away those who love him in favor of lesser things, wreaking havoc on people around him. It’s as much a film about fatherhood (we discover, late, a lot about Troy’s own father that helps explain his relationship with his sons) and marriage as it is about anything else.
So Fences feels in some ways like it’s derived from a legend, the patriarch whose shadow looms so large over his family that they have trouble seeing past the edge of the yard (where he keeps failing to finish building a promised fence). This story, in its own way, has been told for a long time, and will be retold for centuries to come.
But that timelessness shouldn’t be taken to mean that Fences is about the human experience writ large. While on one level the film is drawing on age-old ideas, it’s also grounded in a very specific experience, at a very specific time: when a man like Troy Maxson could hold the belief that despite working hard his whole life, he’s being held back because of the color of his skin, all while his family insists things are changing for the better — and both of those things could, in their own way, be true.
As Frank Rich pointed out in his review, Fences is set in the still-early days of the civil rights movement, when a Northern city like Pittsburgh was “unofficially segregated.” You can feel the tension boiling beneath the surface in Troy and detect, in the film’s epilogue, all of what’s to come.
How that specificity resonates in 2016 should be apparent. Wilson died more than a decade ago, but you could believe he’d resurrected the film for just this cultural moment, a time when it’s abundantly clear that America has yet to come to terms with its messy, often shameful racial inheritance. Like its protagonist, Fences is complex. It’s about the past as well as the future. And optimism and deep-seated realism wrestle in its bones.
Fences opens in limited theaters on December 16 and wide on Christmas Day.