Popcorn: “Fences”

Scales the Dramatic Heights

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

Denzel Washington’s phenomenally touching, multi-textured performance in August Wilson’s “Fences” sings a heartrending paean to every dad who struggled to make a living, raise a family and preserve his human dignity in the face of herculean obstacles. Plying one of the most complexly realized, tragic American figures since Arthur Miller’s iconized Willy Loman, the philosophical, historical and psychological contemplations Mr. Washington plumbs are packed with seriocomic emotion.


This is filmed theater at its very best. Utilizing only four or five sets to occasionally supplement the working class, Pittsburgh backyard where most of the action takes place, Denzel Washington, who also directed, establishes a homey, inviting stage. There, where he has promised to build his wife Rose, superbly played by Viola Davis, a formidable wooden fence, Washington’s Troy Maxson, a garbage man, holds court. Pontificating, rationalizing and lyrically sermonizing in a mostly unapologetic, nostalgia-filled oration, he defends his trespasses and cites his heroism.


We commiserate, judge, anguish over humankind’s challenging plight, and shed a tear or two as the unfolding autobiography Troy regales us with rewardingly materializes into the plot. This greater, overall impetus is given movement via a few pungent turning points and an assortment of extremely well chosen, literary mechanisms to which we can all relate. Hey, we’re talking Pulitzer Prize for Drama here, 1987. And, assuring the production’s genuineness, the screenplay, which August Wilson wrote before his passing, is handled with deft responsibility.


Washington as helmsman, aided by creative cinematography and artistic editing, manages a smartly flowing, spatial choreography. Benefitting from these technically astute attributes, the half dozen performances are all solid if not outright stellar. Miss Davis as the loving, long-suffering wife dedicated to making her man feel like the king he himself isn’t really sure he is, is peerless. Rose’s selfless pursuit of Troy’s happiness is a subplot unto itself.


Playing the sounding board that helps delve into Troy’s past and how he has come to his current circumstances, Stephen Henderson is enamoring as longtime friend Bono. The old pal brags for and ennobles his personal hero in the best Kiplingesque tradition, but with a twist. As matters progress, he is also the objective voice of conscience. In one very important sequence of events, when Troy might be in trouble for complaining to the Sanitation Department that there are no black drivers, the bantering bravado between the two friends is pricelessly telling.


You see, it’s the late 1950s, and the civil rights movement that will shove the next decade out of the dark ages is brewing. In his homespun way of seeing things, Troy’s diatribes against the rampant racial inequality that has been an albatross to his economic and social progress is angrily outlined. But most egregious is the unforgivable heartbreak that cannot be ameliorated by any future legislation. A greatly acclaimed ballplayer, he was, alas, past his prime by the time the color line was broken. Indeed, “what could have been” remain the four saddest words.


This causes a deep-seated mistrust that painfully impacts his teenaged son, Cory, nicely acted by Jovan Adepo. Recently recruited by a college for his football prowess, Cory sees the gridiron as his entrée to great expectations…but only if dad will sign his permission. Projecting his own disappointment in sports and thus pooh-poohing the much ballyhooed winds of change and the equality they’re expected to bring, Troy insists the high-schooler concentrates instead on his menial position at the supermarket. Maybe he’ll work his way up to manager someday.


Not that father and son need a specific bone of contention to showcase the dysfunction that troublingly defines their relationship. But it is the stirring, dramatic device by which playwright Wilson examines the universal dynamics of this age-old thrashing about between generations. Seen as a confounding combination of a simple, repetitive pattern of learned behavior and a mystifying, unquantifiable search for love and understanding, the treatment is profoundly compelling. The touching conclusions are sure to prompt a rush of memories…hopefully good.


Also included in this classically significant example of great American playwriting are the ethical mullings that each juncture of our lives summons, exemplified here by how Troy treats his mentally challenged brother, Gabriel, a WWII casualty movingly played by Mykelti Williamson. All of this is proficiently delivered in an outstanding blend of the cinematic and theatrical as Washington the director complements his award-worthy portrayal with an astute weaving of the two forms.


Indeed, we’ve been apprised ad nauseam on the subject of fences lately, most of it shortsighted, regressive and naively insulting to our intelligence. But make no mistake, this “Fences” is the good kind…the one that tells of human understanding, instead of demeaning it.

“Fences,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Denzel Washington and stars Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson. Running time: 138 minutes