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Film review: Denzel Washington in Fences – ‘shattering, powerful, beautifully acted’

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences. Photo: David Lee
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Broadway is called the Great White Way because of the lights emanating from Times Square and the dozens of theatre marquees. But it’s also the case that the work seen there is predominantly white, too. Things are changing, and the late, great playwright August Wilson is central to this change. His monumental cycle of 10 plays – each set in a different decade of the last century – have all been seen on Broadway, with 1982’s Jitney taking its current belated bow there now.

But it was the Pulitzer and Tony winning play Fences that in 1987 began Wilson’s Broadway assault, and it’s also the sole play from the cycle that has had a West End run – and not once but twice, at the Garrick in 1990 (when a young Adrian Lester played the aspiring baseball player son) and again in 2013 at the Duchess with Lenny Henry as the patriarch.

Now Denzel Washington, who starred in a 2010 Broadway revival of the play, has used his star power to bring it to the screen, directing it (his third outing as film director) as well as reprising his stage role as Troy Maxson. The cast includes four of the other principals who shared the stage with him in 2010.

Washington’s film version opens the drama up a bit. It begins with him and his best friend (and former prison inmate) Bono riding the Pittsburgh streets, where nine of the 10 plays are set, on the back of the refuse truck that they work on. We also see him visiting City Hall to successfully challenge the city’s institutional racism.

But essentially this is a domestic drama, and most of the action takes place inside the house and its backyard that he shares with his second wife Rose, played by the luminous, stunning Viola Davis, and resentful teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

If all the talk sometimes provides a reminder of the film’s stage origins, Washington’s fierce use of close-ups amplifies its intensity, too, and the sense of the confinement of the lives it portrays, with the building of the garden fence that gives the play its title is also a powerful metaphor: they keep people in as well as out.

Washington’s Troy fences his son Cory out, and the play is a shattering portrait of a father revisiting his own life disappointments on his offspring.

At 62, Washington may be nearly a decade older than his character’s stated 53, which he carries it off as he utterly inhabits this damaged man who can’t stop himself causing more damage. But it is Davis – perplexingly nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar, but in fact giving a leading performance – who casts the film’s most moving glow.

Fences is a story of powerful humanity, and, also reprising stage roles, the wonderful Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono, Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel, and Russell Hornsby as Troy’s oldest son also offer finely etched contributions.


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Shattering, powerful and beautifully acted film version of August Wilson's Broadway play