A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.
I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.
In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.
Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.
If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.
It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.
Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.
And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.
I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.