Denzel Washington directs and stars in a powerful adaptation of August Wilson's play, co-starring Viola Davis
Denzel Washington gives a towering performance in the long-awaited screen adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Fences, a defining work in 20th century theatre and a timeless family drama. Washington, who also directs, knows it like the back of his hand, having played protagonist Troy Maxson in the play's 2010 Broadway revival. He has also reunited the adult ensemble of that production: Viola Davis as Troy's long-suffering, loyal wife Rose, Mykelti Williamson as his brother Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his elder son Lyons and Stephen McKinley Henderson as his buddy Bono, all of whom are superb. Newcomers Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney play his younger son Cory and the scene-stealing Raynell.
Part of the late Wilson's epic American Century Cycle, it is set in 1950s Pittsburgh where Troy is a proud, tight-fisted, ageing working stiff full of bitter resentment and frustration that God, poverty and segregation prevented him from realising his youthful potential as a sportsman. Still, he has earned respect and with a drink or several in him is the life of the party, holding forth in his backyard with raucous stories, a commanding personality and Wilson's distinctive language that is natural, furious, filthy and poetic.
This patriarch's flaws become all too clear in a searing series of careless cruelties and breathtaking betrayals. But Washington triumphs in illuminating what Wilson did best, shifting sympathies with such generous empathy and affection that every character has moments when you love them and feel their pain, and despite his failings you grieve for Troy's disappointments and frailties. Wilson specifically articulates the African-American experience but the complex husband-wife relationship and the troubled father-son interactions will be understood by people everywhere.
The film was shot – beautifully – entirely on location in Wilson's old working class Pittsburgh neighbourhood. What will not be to everyone's taste is the sense of importance that at times weighs heavily, and the running time that Washington seemingly couldn't bear to cut. What is not up for debate is that this is a work full of sensitivity, humour and wisdom, enacted with ferocious passion. Washington and the gut-wrenchingly brilliant Davis won Tonys for their performances on Broadway. For this not to get any Oscars love would really be a scandal.
General release from Fri 10 Feb.