The blue music of “Fences” sings with a ferocious beauty in Denzel Washington’s long-in-coming adaptation of August Wilson’s masterpiece of African-American survival and sorrow.
Transfers from stage to screen often serve up only a pale reflection of the electric, live-wire theater experience. But Washington, in his good sense, has neither strained to make August’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play particularly cinematic nor to “open it up” much from the confines of the staged settings.
What we have, instead, is a meat-and-potatoes drama, delivered with full-bodied, powerhouse performances and an attuned ear to the bebop rhythms of Wilson’s dense, musical dialogue. The 1957-set “Fences” surely doesn’t call for anything like a Stanley Kubrick treatment. Just give us the words and the people, with passion.
“Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner,” says Troy Maxson (Washington), a 53-year-old garbage man in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Primarily from the hemmed-in backyard of his brick house he pours forth a torrent of rage, bitterness, pride and anguish.
“Fences,” part of August’s celebrated 10-part, decade-by-decade Century cycle, ought to have been made decades ago. It nearly was once, but Wilson’s insistence that a black director make it was deemed impractical by a backward Hollywood.
So Washington’s “Fences,” the first big-screen adaption of any of Wilson’s plays, is righting a wrong. The upside to the timing is that it would be difficult imagining better performers than Washington and Viola Davis, who starred together in a 2010 Broadway revival.
Wilson claimed to have never seen or read Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” before writing “Fences,” but the two works are undeniably linked in their grand, wrenching portraits of bone-tired mid-century American men coming to the realization of how little their lifetime of work has gotten them.
Maxson, an illiterate former Negro League baseball star who spent 15 years in prison, is a nine-to-five, blue-collar patriarch in loud revolt against a life that’s ground him down. With almost unrelenting bombast, he’s at war with the racism that’s boxed him in his whole life, with the changing world around him and with his own mortality. Feeling the devil near, Maxson is building a fence to keep him out — though there are other reasons he’s closing himself off. “I ain’t goin’ easy,” he swears while clutching a bottle to an imagined but palpably present devil. No one would doubt his resolve.
The other characters operate in reaction to the verbal force that is Maxson. First and foremost is his wife, the demure but formidable Rose (Viola Davis), who gradually moves from the kitchen toward the center of the film. She’s a figure of devotion whose own pains and regrets don’t spill out until her climactic speech: “I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom,” she tells Maxson. It’s a knockout moment, delivered by a blistering Davis with tears and snot smeared across her face.
The heart of the drama, though, is its father-son story. Jovan Adepo plays Cory, whose college hopes rest on his football skills. Maxson lectures him again and again: “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway,” he tells him.
Washington’s performance is titanic, surely one of the best of his career. Maxson’s deluge of dialogue — all its tale tales, braggadocio and pain — just flows out of him.
Washington keeps almost entirely to the play’s settings, but the most notable exception is its first scene where Maxson and his friend Jim Bono (a soulful Stephen McKinley Henderson) ride on the back of a garbage truck, up and down Pittsburgh’s hills, while Maxson rails against the lack of black drivers.
It’s an indelible image, and perhaps “Fences” could have used a few more such flourishes. The other obvious visual attempt — a handful of wordless montages — is a misstep, out of sync with the rest of the film. “Fences” may never lose the look and sound of a play, but Washington’s close-up focus on the characters only heightens the dignity Wilson bestowed on them.
“Fences,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.” Running time: 139 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.