Arriving at the end of a remarkable year of African-American cinematic advocacy, the Denzel Washington-August Wilson character study Fences is more of a reassuring cup of coffee and a slice of pie than a call to arms — and a reminder that nostalgia never quite goes out of style, even nostalgia for the bad old days.
As adapted from Wilson's hit stage play of the same name, actor-director Washington plays Troy, a middle-aged city sanitation engineer from Pittsburgh circa the Fifties. Troy may ride around on the back of a garbage truck all day, but after work, when he and his buddy Bono (Stephen Henderson) relax and sip gin in the backyard, the talkative Troy suddenly transmogrifies into the Lion King. Posed alongside him is his better half, his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), the mainstay of the family. After half an hour onstage together — Fences is self-consciously, unapologetically stagey — it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention that quiet Rose is the family's glue, repairing whatever her blustery ruler breaks as he works his way down to the bottom of the bottle. 'Twas ever thus, at least in this well-worn corner of folklore.
The poor but proud and defiant working-man, his long-suffering spouse, and their unruly, tradition-breaking offspring represent antique dramatic stereotypes. Wilson and Washington respond to this challenge with one of the most powerful performances of the latter's lengthy film acting career. The film is almost one long soliloquy, broken up by Rose's poignant attempts to hold the family together. Washington and Davis, stars of the play's 2010 stage revival, paint extravagant verbal panoramas in their speeches. The effect is anti-cinematic in the extreme, but comes as a welcome change of pace from the hurly-burly modernism on display in movie houses most of the year.
Troy clashes with his teenage son Cory (English actor Jovan Adepo) over Cory's athletic ambitions, and studiously ignores everything his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) tries to accomplish, as if there's only room for one lead player in this backyard kingdom. Let's not mention King Lear. Pathetic/comic relief is supplied by Gabriel, Troy's brain-damaged war veteran brother (played by Mykelti Williamson), who pops up frequently to lighten the mood with his innocent clowning. Williamson and Hornsby have the thankless task of bobbing along in Washington's wake, but their character parts save the film again and again from being wrecked on its own histrionic shoals. Meanwhile, Henderson's wise, affable Bono deserves his own play. The character of Troy's love child Raynell (Saniyya Sidney) also gets lost in the shuffle — that character seems to serve no other purpose than to cast aspersions on Troy's self-image as a stand-up guy.
Playwright Tony Kushner helped director Washington and original playwright Wilson trim the much longer play down to multiplex-friendly size. The result is a fairly limited but undeniably sturdy character study, with made-to-order show-stopping roles for the two principals. In this tight little sphere, with these tried-and-true portraits of beloved archetypes, actors Washington and Davis can do no wrong. They roam free and Fences can barely contain them.