Fences
Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references
2 hr. 19 min.

At best, a play written for the stage will be a moderate financial success, and, in addition to critical acceptance, several thousand people will see it and hear its messages or truths. If it’s made into a feature film, there’s the possibility of millions being engaged and entertained. A Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play, Fences, at last, has come to the big screen for all to absorb. And it is transfixing.

Adapted by the late August Wilson, from his own play, its impact probably demands a word more descriptive than powerful — which is accurate, but somehow not a strong enough term. Fences, like the stage effort, is rooted in dialogue: tough, blunt, authentically post-war African American rhythms and idioms that tumble from the screen like 3-D images. Star and first-time director Denzel Washington has publicly marveled at the precise re-creation of the dialect. Wilson’s writing was distinctly for the ear, but visual accuracies are at hand as well. For example, “slipping some skin” at a moment of simpatico in the late 1950s was akin to a modern-day fist-bump. For all this detail, however, it’s important to note that though Fences is a story with black characters, about an African American experience, it is an American story, and uniquely so.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a frustrated, illiterate, verbose, 53-year-old garbage collector in the hard-scrabble Hill section of Pittsburgh, circa 1957. Once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, Troy was too old to advance once the Majors were integrated. His life is now filled by work, and daily bull sessions with friend John Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), watching over his war-ravaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), raging at a no-account eldest son from his first marriage (Russell Hornsby), bullying his youngest, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and alternately sexualizing and subjugating his patient wife, Rose, played by the other-worldly Viola Davis. The first African American actress to win an Emmy for a leading role in a dramatic series, she has a Tony for playing Rose on Broadway and just added the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards for this intense, supporting work — vaulting her to the top of the Oscar contenders list. As Rose, Davis’ raw emotion in the face of humiliation is astonishing. Fierce on the stage, her craft on film is complete. Her every quiver, every tear, in close-up, leaves you spent.

Washington’s Troy is bitter and brash. Resentment fuels his strength in the face of demolished dreams and the pain of limited opportunities and expectations. His was the reality of life for so many middle-aged black men 60 years ago, and he deals with it through ribald humor, gin and tyrannical rants. How he works to crush his talented youngest son’s chance to play college football will resonate like a thunder clap across all cultures.

Through his travail, Troy builds wooden fences around his small backyard, from time to time glancing up at a neighbor’s broken window: shattered glass, representing his aspirations. These fences signify the twin bulwarks of staving off pain and preventing loss, though a mere fence can do neither.

Nominated, Washington was shut out at the Golden Globes, but there are the SAG Awards to come. He’s up for best actor, as is the cast for best ensemble. Look for similar nods and another honor for Viola Davis when Oscar nominations are revealed on Jan. 24. It’s a certainty that Fences will not be ignored.

Meanwhile, Washington has publicly acknowledged that it’ll be a while before he directs again. That’s too bad. His first try is exemplary. Having also won a Tony for the play, he was intimate with the material and understood the difficulty of translating stage work to film. Yet he is brilliant at both directing and acting in this intrinsically human story, a tale of redemption, where the resolution, both in that era and now, is hope.