Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Washington) and his family. Troy is a garbage collector with his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), and lives with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). He has another son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who is a musician, and a brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). Gabe was injured in World War II and the metal plate in his head has left him mentally disabled. As the film unfolds, the story is peeled like an onion as the audience learns more about Troy – where he’s from and who he really is. He is always in conflict with Cory, who feels his father is holding him back. Troy was a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, while Cory is getting attention from college recruiters for football. However, Troy wants his son to learn a trade, feeling that sports is a dead end for him. He is reluctant to change with the times, which Rose tries to point out to him. Troy is a hard man with definite ideas about how life is and how he approaches it. His lifestyle and beliefs bring him into conflict with every member of his family. Will the household survive or will Troy destroy everything?
Fences is a very emotional film with fantastic performances all around. However, as I said above, the story is like an onion as each scene peels more layers to get to the core of the characters. The script from Wilson is excellent. It’s clear that this was based on a play – it has the same feel and beats – but Washington does an amazing job with his direction at having the film transcend its stage roots. He sets up the scenes well and they flow seamlessly into each other while the actors deliver the marvelous dialogue. While the film is a nice and deep family drama, it is also a good examination of racial issues and the African-American experience in 1950s USA, just prior to the civil rights movement. However, the film does drag a bit at times, especially in the third act. Also, the film runs into a slight problem with its protagonist. While Troy is easily the most compelling character in the film, he does several despicable things that can easily turn the audience against him. It’s tough to get behind a guy you don’t like – see my review of Passengers.
The film is filled with stellar performances with Washington and Davis leading the way. The two of them starred in the 2010 revival of the play and both won Tonys for their performances. They do not disappoint here, giving heartfelt, incredible performances. Adepo is also great in his scenes with Washington. You’ll find yourself holding your breath while watching some of them. Henderson has fantastic chemistry with Washington – you believe that they really are old friends. The most touching performance is from Williamson, though, as he plays the mentally impaired Gabe. He plays Gabe as a sweet gentle giant and he’s a ray of sunshine in all of his scenes as your heart breaks for him.
Overall, Fences is definitely more than just its performances, which are superb. The third act drags a bit, but the film is an absolute must-see for Washington and Davis’ performances alone. See it.