By CARL SCHULTZ
Probably there’s not a man or woman on the face of the earth who doesn’t sometimes feel as if fate — or circumstances, or politics, or society — has cheated him out of a better life. Whether we dream of fame or riches, power or affluence, most of us entertain at least occasionally a notion that that life could’ve been vastly better, if only . . .
That feeling is one of the demons Troy Maxton is wrestling in “Fences,” Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious motion picture release of the Christmas season. “Fences” is the long-awaited film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama by Pittsburgh-based playwright August Wilson.
In “Fences,” Troy Maxton is a middle-aged trash collector living in mid-1950s Pittsburgh with his wife, Rose, and their high school-aged son, Cory. Revealed through conversations between Troy and his best friend and co-worker Jim Bono is the knowledge that Maxton was once a baseball player of some promise in the pre-World War II Negro League.
Unfortunately, the color barrier was not broken in major league baseball until Maxton’s prime had already passed . . . although a 13-year stretch in prison for an accidental murder also undoubtedly contributed to Troy’s failure to reach the big leagues.
As the picture begins, Troy’s thoughts are occupied with a confrontation he recently initiated with his employer over an essential unfairness: The relatively-menial task of garbage collection is being performed by black employees, while the less-strenuous and higher-paying position of driving the garbage trucks is assigned to whites. On their walk home from work, Troy vows that he intends to pursue the resolution of the unfairness, even if it costs him his job.
Arriving home, however, Troy is also surprised by his wife with the information that their son Cory is being scouted by a major university, with the intention of recruiting him for a football scholarship —rewarding the son with a free education in exchange for his athletic abilities.
Troy’s reaction is surprising. The elder Maxton is mistrusting: Nothing, he claims, is ever given away for free, and the son is better off where he is — finishing school and keeping his job working weekends at the nearby A&P grocery market. It is suggested that Troy resists the son’s college scholarship because he fears the son exceeding his own modest accomplishments.
Also members of the Maxtons’ extended family are Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel, and Troy’s older son, Lyons. Gabriel is a World War II veteran who sustained a disabling combat wound, and is now mentally disabled and living on a veteran’s pension. Approximately $3,000 paid to Gabriel by the U.S. government for his wound was used by Troy to purchase the Maxtons’ home, with the understanding that Troy and his family would be Gabriel’s caregivers, although as the picture begins Gabriel has recently moved into the home of a woman in the neighborhood, to whom the Maxtons pay a monthly rent.
Troy’s adult son, Lyons, a musician in local bars and jazz clubs, is the result of a relationship in which Troy engaged previous to his meeting Rose. Lyons is resented by his father for his lack of responsibility — the elder son is perpetually short on cash and borrowing from Troy, either unable or unwilling to toil in a more responsible profession.
Troy’s primary pursuit during evenings and weekends is the construction of a wooden fence around the perimeter of the backyard of the Maxton home. The reason for the fence is variously suggested as a means of protecting the family from the outside world, isolating the family in a domain where Troy is their sole provider, or as a means of keeping death — the Grim Reaper — away from Troy.
In this manner, the angel of death becomes almost an unseen member of the picture’s cast. The fence also is symbolic of the barriers Troy has erected between himself and his sons.
Originally produced in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, “Fences” went on to a respectable run on Broadway in 1987 and 1988 at the 46th Street Theatre, with actor James Earl Jones performing the role of Troy Maxton. “Fences” won Tony Awards for Best Play, and an Outstanding Actor award for Jones.
A limited 13-week revival of Fences was staged in April of 2010 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, and won three Tony Awards — for Washington and Davis as Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Actress, and for Best Revival of a Play.
The movie is directed by star Denzel Washington, who’s also guided the dramas “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007. And Washington the director serves the source material of Fences well . . . possibly a little too well. Although August Wilson died in October of 2005, prior even to the acclaimed Broadway revival of “Fences,” Wilson is credited appropriately as the author of the picture’s screenplay, “based upon his play.”
And with very few exceptions, a filmed version of the Broadway play is what we see with Washington’s motion picture version. The play itself serves as the movie’s screenplay — there’s virtually no attempt expand the drama into locations beyond the Maxton home. Most of the cast — Washington and Davis, Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono — also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. And after certain key scenes, Washington the director even allows the screen to fade to black — for the viewer, it’s impossible to not imagine the curtain descending in a stage production, to provide a break between scenes.
But staginess aside, “Fences” as a movie is an honor to watch, if not precisely a pleasure. This is not a happy picture, and family patriarch Troy Maxton is revealed throughout the drama as a deeply flawed individual. But the production is remarkably well-crafted, almost flawless, making superb use of its filming locations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, although the exteriors are seen in only a few shots. Backgrounds are digitally modified showing 1950s-era steel mill smokestacks. And the production design is nearly perfect — even the garbage collected by Troy and Bono looks authentic, although the laundry Rose hangs on the clothesline in the backyards sometimes looks like it’s already been dried and pressed.
And the acting is uniformly superb by all cast members. At age 62, Denzel Washington has become something of our national actor, nearly a force of nature, and plainly in “Fences” he’s never been better or more effective. The sight of Washington opening a window during a rainstorm to bellow in rage at the angel of death reminds the viewer that film acting just doesn’t get any better than this.
Matching Washington eyeball-to-eyeball, if not scene-to-scene, is the excellence — almost saintliness — of Viola Davis as Rose. Davis’ performance is a revelation, nearly an epiphany, and makes the viewer wish her gift as a performer could be used in more motion picture productions beyond the supporting roles she’s played in other, more inferior films. This is not a supporting role — Rose could easily be promoted as the primary character in Fences.
The first productions of “Fences” during the 1980s took place nearly 30 years after the timeframe of the play. And the motion picture version of the play is being released now, some 30 years following the original Broadway production. Partly for this reason, audiences expecting, or fearing, a rumination on racial relations might be disappointed, although the picture plainly is based upon the African-American experience during a time of change, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
But “Fences” the motion picture is also a work in which time has caught up with the artistic intentions and expressions of author August Wilson.
Is “Fences” still relevant, 30 years after its stage debut? Absolutely. More than age or affluence, inequality, generations, unfairness, politics, or even race, “Fences” is a movie about American life.