What ‘Fences’ Tells Us About Our Past – and Our Present

Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's play has some extra, unexpected resonance.

It’s going to be a strange year or so in popular culture, a period in which – thanks to the slow production time of most pop art, particularly movies – we’re going to see work written and produced before the election of Donald Trump, but filled with accidental resonance in its aftermath. (I’m giving it about a year, under the presumption that he doesn’t get us bombed before that period ends, hahahahajumpsoutwindow.) We were starting to see it during the campaign, in the unapologetic white supremacists of Green Room or the narcissistic no-talent at the center of Florence Foster Jenkins; three days after a quarter of the country (which is enough, somehow) elected him to the office, we had Arrival, which imagined a world of communication and cooperation for the greater good, an idea that suddenly seemed more like science fiction than the picture’s alien visitors.

And now we have Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Fences, a film that inadvertently echoes both the thinking of Trumpism, and the context that movement so carefully sidesteps. It’s set in 1956, in a black working-class neighborhood, concerned specifically with the dynamics of single family. The patriarch is Troy Maxson (Washington), a man with a complicated past: sent away from home barely a teenager, he spent some time as a petty thief and then spent some time in the penitentiary, where he discovered a gift for baseball that would’ve landed him in the majors, had he only been a few years younger (“There ought not ever have been a time called ‘too early’,” he fumes). He’s a bitter man, and his resentments – at the world he’s trapped in, and the opportunities that’ve passed him by – bubble up without much provocation. But when he casually mentions that his father was a homesteader, the context of those attitudes snap into focus. They’re a sharp reminder that even though this story is set in a comparatively recent past, these characters were barely a generation removed from slavery.

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Yet Troy is also an authoritarian bully, a petty tyrant, emotionally brutal and shockingly small to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo). The boy is 17, and they have the kind of fights parents and children often have at that age, but with a dark threat of violence swirling underneath. At the end of a particularly nasty spat, the son asks the father a simple, open question: “Why didn’t you ever like me?” It’s a moment of raw openness and emotional vulnerability – and Troy immediately seizes the opportunity to wound his son. “What law is there, say I got to like you?” he asks, running down all the things he’s done for the boy except show him affection or acceptance, and concluding, like he’s twisting a blade, “I ain’t got to like you.”

What’s particularly striking about that scene is the one that immediately follows, between Troy and his wife Rose (the extraordinary Viola Davis), who has overheard his attack, and confronts him about it. Suddenly, he provides an insight: the root of their fight is that his son plays football, and has a chance to parlay that into a scholarship, but the idea of a son who plays sports is too close to his own broken dreams. Or, as he puts it: “I want him to get as far away from my life as he can.” It’s a moment of simple, powerful truth and honesty – an insight that makes his behavior understandable, if not acceptable. But it’s a truth he’ll only share with his wife, and only when she backs him into a corner. That’s the kind of thing you keep inside, if you’re a “real man.” To his son, he is the law, and that’s that.

Washington plays those moments with terrifying intensity, yet with potent variation; he’s never just yelling or intimidating, but working all kinds of notes, in concert with each other. It’s a performance particularly dazzling in its unwavering control: he modulates his volume, changes the tempo and intensity at significant moments, knows when to push us out and when to gather us in. Washington first tackled the role in a Broadway revival a couple of years back, and you can see the opportunity he had to workshop it over all those performances – though it never seems calculated or false. This is an actor with absolute mastery of his instrument.

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Such melodic analogies are sort of unavoidable in contemplating Fences. One of the joys of Wilson’s script is the American vernacular musicality of his dialogue, the earthy humor of the characters’ interactions – particularly in the first act, when Troy, Rose, and Troy’s co-worker and buddy Bono (the wonderful Stephen Henderson) are telling stories and calling out each other’s exaggerations (Troy: “Rose’ll tell you!” Rose, immediately: “Troy lyin’”). The laughter is real; just as real is how quickly it can come to a dead stop.

Washington’s direction can’t match his acting – Fences is great filmed theater but not exactly great cinema. He often shoots the dialogue scenes too close in, throwing in little slow dollies on characters during significant passages that call attention to themselves, and Marcelo Zarvos’s score is too pushy by a half. But there’s no questioning Washington’s skill as an actor’s director, and the ensemble is first-rate, particularly Davis. She plays Rose as a woman with all the frustrations of her husband, but none of his freedom; when her pain and anger finally come out, the force of that tsunami is stunning. But such firmness is always fleeting, and she has a moment of eventual surrender that’s just as shattering.

The questions of legacy – of how those before us influence who we are, for better and often for worse, and what we choose to do with their example – are central to Fences; we can either reenact the horrors inflicted upon us, or we can take the best of what they offered, and forge a path of our own. To put it mildly, this is not a choice confined to the text. “Times have changed,” Rose tells Troy. “The world’s changed and you can’t even see it.” She’s right about that. Both parts of it.

Fences is out Christmas Day.