It’s always tough adapting a stage play into a movie even when the play in question is August Wilson’s Fences which in 1987 won both a Pulitzer and Tony for Best Play. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson’s ten-part circle which were all set in Pittsburgh and explore the evolving blue-collar African-American experience focusing on race relations among other themes.
Wilson himself adapted the play for the screenplay which is directed with great conviction by two-time Oscar winner Denzil Washington, who also stars in it too. He plays Troy 53-year-old garbage collector who struggles on his minimum wage to provide for his family. He has a more than a few chips on his shoulder as in his youth he was the star of the Negro Baseball League but that never led anywhere after he was imprisoned for an accidental murder he committed in a robbery that went wrong. Nowadays his aspirations are much simpler as he thinks that society will never change for the black community, and he will be content with being the first colored man ever allowed to drive the garbage truck.
Troy lives in a house purchased with money his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) had received whose war injury to his head has caused him noticeable psychological damage. Gabe has just moved out, but still visits daily because although Troy may be somewhat indifferent to him, Rose (Viola Davis) who is Troy’s second wife, treats him with the same compassion that she does with the rest of the family.
The action opens on a Friday night ……payday …. and Troy receives a visit from Lyons (Russell Hornsby) his eldest son from a previous marriage who is looking to borrow some money. Troy gives him a hard time as Lyons had refused to compromise like he did and find a real job rather than pursuing his dream of becoming a musician. He is also equally as tough on his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who he won’t let accept an offer to play football because he says he fears he will have to face racial discrimination like he did, but it is also obvious that he is jealous of Cory breaking out of the mold. After the two of them getting to a major fight about this, Troy throws his son out of the house, and Cory enlists in the military to finally assert his independence.
It is however Troy’s admission to his loyal church-going wife that he has been having an affair and that his mistress is pregnant, that is the centerpiece for the major turning point of the drama that really breaks this family apart .
The movie provides the actors with some wonderful lengthy scene-stealing monologues, and even though Washington is nothing less than superb as the perpetually angry and stubborn Troy, it is Davis’s compelling performance as the much-put-upon Rose that has you reaching for the Kleenex with the same speed that the Academy should have to give her the Oscar which she so deserves.
Despite the stagey feeling of the movie that can be off-putting when the action seems too static, this is such a powerful piece which gives such great insight from both sides of the ‘fence’ into how the African/American community fared back in the 1950’s when racism was so rife and ingrained into society, and so deserves to be applauded and reach the widest audience possible.
The fence itself referred to in the title physically gets constructed in the back yard over the years where most of the action takes place. However it also is a symbol for the barrier that Troy has erected between himself and his family, also he conceptualizes it as an allegory to keep the Grim Reaper away.