A copy of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences, has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for nearly ten years. I was supposed to read it for a class in college. Somehow I scraped by keeping my head low and barely contributing to the class conversation, my usual style. A few weeks ago, just before seeing Fences, I finally opened that old book and read every last word. I only wish I had read it earlier and been a better student. At least I did my homework this time.
Denzel Washington stars and directs this film adaptation of Fences. He portrays Troy Maxson, a garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy doesn’t have a whole lot, but he’s got just enough that his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), wants him to build a fence in their backyard. His friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) helps bring out the fence’s meaning, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in”
The way Troy and his sons butt heads resonates so much about any parent-child conflict. Troy gets annoyed that his older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) only comes by to visit on payday to borrow money. His younger son with Rose, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is being recruited by a college football coach. Everyone is excited for Cory except Troy, who often reminisces about his past prospects of playing baseball and how he was held back by his race. Perhaps he’s thinks it’s too good to be true, or maybe he really is afraid of his son being better than him, but his decision to not let Cory play is only the first blow to his little family. The news he brings to Rose later rocks the family to its core.
Like any great play, the action of the this film is mainly contained in the great dialogue. The lines, straight out of Wilson’s play, flow like music from Washington and Davis. Troy is the kind of character that is nearly always talking, and seems to love to hear himself talk. Within a few minutes of the film, we love to hear him as well. All the actors establish perfect rhythms passing their lines back and forth. It’s easy to get swept up in their conversations, whether Troy is bringing bad news or just swigging gin on the porch.
Fences is currently up for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Denzel Washington is nominated for lead actor, his acting seventh nomination. Viola Davis is nominated for supporting actress, her third nomination. And August Wilson, who died in 2005, is posthumously nominated for adapted screenplay. Right now, I’d put my money on Davis taking home an Oscar.
Fences is a great film, but sadly it attracts a smaller crowd. I’m happy to see it get a best picture nomination and bring it into a larger spotlight. This story about normal African-Americans just living their lives is so strong and powerful that it still resonates today. And it has a beautiful, perfect ending, trumpets and all.
“Everything that boy do, he do for you.”