By Loren Smith | Staff Writer
August Wilson’s iconic 1983 play “Fences” was brought to the big screen for the first time this Dec. 16. The powerful film, which was also a Tony Award-winning Broadway show that starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in its revival, tells the brutally honest story of the Maxson family, who live in the Hill District in Pittsburgh during the 1950s.
The historical drama deals with the struggles waste collector Troy Maxson (Washington) faces, both in raising his family and in moving on from his failed attempt at a Major League Baseball career. His contempt for sports strains his relationship with his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who wants to be a football player and even impacts his relationship with his wife, Rose (Davis), who supports their son’s interests.
The film’s abundance of witty banter and casual interactions among characters makes it a unique and dynamic story. Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who was left mentally impaired from World War II, acts as a comic relief with a simple yet genuine understanding of the way things are. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s son from a previous marriage, makes for a relatable character who wants to bond with his father, despite his love for music being something that is difficult for Troy to understand.
Featuring several well-known Pittsburgh areas, the locations and scenery in “Fences” play a major role into the overall mid-20th century, urban vibe of the film. The majority of the film takes place in the Hill District, where the Maxsons’ home is located and where Wilson grew up. Also playing into the film’s setting are some famous staples in the city’s culture, from a bottle of Heinz ketchup to the numerous mentions of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Washington, who directed the film along with starring in it, brings an incredible amount of power and emotion to his role. The many stories and metaphors that Troy comes up with regarding him fighting off death are especially well-delivered by Washington and captivating to the audience due to how believable he makes the speeches seem, with both his intense words and physicality. He and Davis’ onscreen chemistry is unequivocal, with each of their performances generating the film’s success by adding depth to the characters that Wilson created.
The movie also touches on African Americans’ struggle for racial equality during a pivotal time in the Civil Rights Movement. Troy often associates his failure at becoming a professional baseball player with the fact that most players at that time were white. He even meaningfully challenges the waste collection company that he works for as to why they only let white men drive the garbage trucks.
Though it has only been out for a relatively short amount of time, “Fences” has already received a well-deserved multitude of awards and nominations, with the most notable among these being Davis’ recent Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress. The combination of Wilson’s classic work and a cast of famous stars makes this film a lovable masterpiece.
“Fences” has become such a remarkable story because of its honesty of the struggles of one working class family in the 1950s. The film is not an action-packed thriller, but its timeless tale about the resilience of the human spirit will leave audiences with a new understanding of life.