Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington
As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.
Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.
Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.
Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.
Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?