Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is troubled. He is a black man who has been supporting his family by picking up other people’s trash. Once a promising baseball player, he now rides the back of the garbage truck, jumping off to do the heavy lifting while a white man occupies the driver’s seat. As the movie opens, he is waiting to find out if he still has a job after pushing to break that color barrier.
Fences is a very simple movie at first glance. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, it is based on a play by August Wilson, and it keeps the feel of the play by limiting most scenes to the main floor of the house or the yard. There are only a few characters, and the film is rich in dialogue. However, that simplicity is deceiving, since these are very complex, well-rounded characters. Their relationships are complicated, as are their emotions and motivations.
The movie revolves around Troy, his relationship with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), their son, Cory, and a handful of other people close to them. Troy’s history unfolds throughout the film, and it’s a hard one. In spite of thwarted ambitions and limited options, he’s committed to providing faithfully for his family. He is at times a lively, charming storyteller, and at other times bitter, angry, and unpredictable. He works hard and does his best to be a responsible parent, though he is hampered by a lack of role models to emulate. He takes care of his brother, Gabriel, who was injured in war and has psychological impairments as a result.
Throughout the story, Troy is building a fence at Rose’s request. He’s not making quick work of it, finding other things to do when he has free time. But slowly the structure appears. When conflict comes up in their marriage, a friend suggests that he seems to be building the fence to keep others out, while his wife wants to build a fence to keep her family in. This push and pull is at the center of their marriage, as she tries to hold him close and build their relationship while he keeps others at a distance.
Cory is a good football player who is being recruited. Troy’s disappointment in baseball makes him distrustful of a future in sports, causing father and son to become more at odds in an already tension-filled relationship.
At one point, Rose explains to Troy that she wanted their marriage to blossom and be fruitful, but she discovered early on that she was trying to plant a seed in some very hard soil. Their relationship endured because they both made sacrifices and compromises to honor their commitment. Rose tends to and nurtures the hard soil in her husband; he provides a home and income for his wife and son.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are powerhouse actors, dominating the screen, but well-supported by great performances from the rest of the cast. The feelings and words are raw and unsettling; this is not a movie for young viewers. But it rings true for mature viewers. The seeds of love and commitment are sometimes sown into fertile soil and sometimes fall upon rocky ground. This particular marriage tries to take root in the thorny shadows of poverty, racism, and disappointment. Their son, in turn, is left to seek redemption by embracing the best of his father while he tries to shrug off the worst of him.
Fences will leave viewers with a variety of questions, feelings, and opinions. The multitude of themes and relational issues would make this film a great choice for a movie group looking for something to chew on together. (Paramount)