Fences is clearly a labour of love for Denzel Washington.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson, both he and Viola Davis won Tony Awards for their performances in the 2010 Broadway revival and they have both been nominated for acting Oscars for this immaculate film adaptation, which Washington also directed.
Set in Pittsburgh in the ‘50s, Washington plays Troy Maxton, a larger-than-life bin-man whose garrulous nature hides some darker urges that are gradually revealed throughout the film. Troy was a star baseball player when the sport was still segregated, which meant he never got the chance to play in the big leagues. Consequently, he is vehemently opposed to his youngest son Corey (Jovan Adepo) pursuing his dream of playing college football.
He also has conflicting feelings about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered brain damage during the war and whose army disability pension allowed Troy to buy his home. His devoted wife Rose (Davis), meanwhile, attempts to keep the peace, but when she discovers another hidden side to her husband’s life, even she begins to question her loyalties.
Washington, who has been coasting of late in genre films, gives a bravura performance as Troy, expertly capturing both his easy-going charm and tyrannical inclinations. Davis is equally as good as his long-suffering partner, while there are fine supporting turns from the other alumni from the Broadway production: Williamson, Stephen Henderson – reprising the role of Troy’s best pal Bono – and Russell Hornsby as Lyon, his eldest son from a previous marriage.
However, Washington’s work behind the camera is less satisfying: there’s an assured tempo to his direction, but the action is restricted mainly to the Maxton home and aside from a few scenes, Washington makes no attempt to open things out; you are never in any doubt that this is a filmed play. On the plus side, it does allow you to appreciate the poetic naturalism of Wilson’s dialogue and his unflinching examination of father-son dynamics, lost dreams, rascism and masculinity.
As a cinematic experience, Fences is not without its flaws, but as a celebration of an important work of African-American culture it can’t be faulted.
In cinemas: February 9, 2017
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson
Directed by: Denzel Washington