“I once wrote this short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World,’ and it went like this —’The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.”
That quote is drawn from a Paris Review interview with August Wilson, published in 1999. As Wilson suggests, the single sentence short story does a better job than any plot recap ever could of describing what’s happening in Fences, his 1983 Pulitzer-winning stage play that has finally made it to the screen. Still, recounting the particulars of the story is a requirement for a review (even if I often try to pretend it’s not), so here goes. Set in the early nineteen-sixties, Fences focuses on Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington), a former Negro Leagues baseball star who works for the sanitation department in Pittsburgh, hanging off the back of rolling trucks his best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). At first glance, Troy’s life is fairly simple: work all week, come home to enjoy a Friday night twirl with a pint of gin, then spend the weekend working fitfully on household tasks, like the long-promised installation of a backyard fence. He’s a boisterous, commanding storyteller, to alternating amusement and irritation of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). And he has a strained relationship with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), as his authoritarian dictates push against the boy’s dreams of something bigger for himself, built upon a talent for football.
As must happen, matters get more complicated, though Wilson opts for the high drama of small but painful mistakes rather than overt cataclysm. (Though Wilson has been dead for over a decade, the film adheres so closely to the original stage work and the playwright’s own adaptation, crafted years ago, that he is the sole credited screenwriter. Tony Kushner reportedly helped finesse it into place for the new film, taking a co-producer credit for the effort.) Wilson is stubbornly committed to showing how people move through the world, undone by inadvertent self-treachery. Characters are built carefully, shrewdly, deeply. Those figures are then set into motion, following story threads that progress in largely expected ways, yet offer a jolt with a mixture of authenticity and the bruising poetry of Wilson’s ricocheting language.
As directed by Washington, the film feels consistently betrays its origins on the stage, but that may be the point. Even in carrying forward most of the cast from the 2010 revival that earned him a Tony Award, Washington demonstrates a commitment to preservation over reinvention. Assuming his performance carries much the same shape and potency as his stage turn, it’s easy to see why he claimed that trophy. Washington is thunderous in the role, while also offering hints of the thwarted life and resulting haunting sense of inadequacy that forms Troy’s bluster. Davis also won a Tony for that 2010 production, and it’s fascinating to see her bring a far more tempered, natural approach to the character, even when the script afford her the chance to rage in a couple showstopper moments. At times, it can seem as if Washington and Davis are in two slightly different productions, taking different tones in the adaption of the play. Remarkably, that disparate quality work, enhancing the chasm that opens between the two characters.
In the same Paris Review interview cited above, Wilson attested to the accuracy of an Edward Albee quote put before him: “A firstrate play exists completely on the page and is never improved by production; it is only proved by production.” This film version of Fences has its little flaws, but it achieves that central goal. It offers proof, decisively.