Dialogue is the driving force behind the Denzel Washington-starring, Denzel Washington-directed film “Fences,” playing at Cinestudio this week. Dialogue along with thundering dramatic monologues that feel ripped from the lines of the great plays of the 1950s.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a working-class African-American father against the rusty backdrop of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The indomitable Viola Davis plays opposite as his wife Rose. Troy takes every chance he can to instill his own honorable values into his teenage son Cory, but also constantly warns him away from his aspirations, reminding him that “the white man” will block him at every turn. Troy is devoted to his family and in awe of his own ability to keep them together, against all odds. His son’s football and college dreams frighten him so profoundly because young Cory would be making the safe choice if he went into public sanitation like his father.
Washington plays the lead role with wonderful clarity, filling Troy’s character with all of the pride and overbearing protective instincts that make up the mind of an aging father. Holding court in the stage-like backyard of the family house, Troy takes the audience on a walk through the uphill battle of his life, his arrival at family, and his relationship with. death. It gnaws at Troy that much of his accomplishment in settling down with a family was made possible by money given to him in order to take care of his now homeless brother Gabe, who has been mentally disabled since an injury in the war.
Viola Davis balances the inflexible energy of Washington’s character with her own flexibility. The first scenes reveal Rose Maxson to be a product of her time- a dutiful wife, she makes it her life’s goal to support the family. But when Troy, the lecturing and seemingly all-knowing father figure of the Maxson house reveals to his wife that he will soon be having a daughter with another woman, Davis’ performance really begins.
Troy confesses the extent of his infidelity to his wife, and with her response, Davis takes the reins of the story for herself. In a scene that takes place (as most do) in the beautifully shot backyard, Davis channels the anger of a woman who feels that her life has been wasted, and seems to take on the voice of the audience for a moment. It is a transcendent performance for her, made all the more effective by Washington’s careful balance of wisdom and bulls–t. That’s what makes each of these people such compelling characters- they have been forced together not only for love, but for safety, and as an escape from a horrific past that was still right down the block for Black Americans in the 1950’s.
Troy is emphatic that this was a time which only the older generation could understand completely. As Troy begins to alienate his family with his self-destructive tendencies and constant culling of hope for the future, each member of the family must show themselves for who they really are- both together and alone. Some complain that “Fences” makes little use of the cinematic toolbox that is open to it. That might be true if it were not the intention of the filmmakers to work toward the self-containment that the stage provides. It is more than a piece of theater recorded on film, but not so far removed from its source material that it doesn’t strike the tone of a very well rehearsed live performance.
“Fences” tries to plug itself into the American literary tradition in ways that sometimes feel overdone. The recurring Uncle Gabe is an example. Troy’s mentally disabled brother is a character of fragility in an uncaring world, but through all of his disadvantages, he remains an innocent soul. As effective as this can be, it has become something of a trope. Gabe shouts about judgment day, blowing a disused trumpet and handing out wilted flowers. Reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s immortal Lenny, Gabe’s oft misunderstood beauty only serves here as a distraction from the more central themes and an easily accessible voice for spiritually significant thoughts.
As an adaptation of one of playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Plays, the film necessarily sets out to shed light on the different perspectives at play in African-American life midway through the twentieth century. This it accomplishes beautifully, inverting certain ideas about family and race, and refashioning them into themes that are not universal, but highly specific and powerful.
Though “Fences” takes place for most of its scenes in one relatively small space, it reaches across time and tells the story of a family. Through the focal point of a few months in the life of a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, the real story of the movie can be traced through several generations of the same family, and the things that really held them together. “Fences” will play at Cinestudio Feb. 10-18.

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