Credit: David Lee/Paramount ©Davis and Washington impress and confound in the film of Wilson's "Fences"
I admire Denzel Washington's film version of the legendary 1983 August Wilson play, "Fences," but not for the reasons that critics and audiences (mostly theater-goers) have been applauding for the past 30-plus years.
Frankly, initially, the film repelled me which was a surprise, given that I'm inarguably part of the liberal demographic for which both the play and film were designed. Wilson, who died in 2005, was deservedly revered for providing a voice for the downtrodden and neglected, and "Fences," considered by many to be his masterwork, is a piece of a ten-part mosaic titled "The Pittsburgh Cycle," an ambitious project that examines, in-depth, both the progress and the stasis of the African-American experience.
The full- and two-page display ads splashed with euphoric quotes about the film made me question my own opinion of the film, which is decidedly less enthusiastic. Thinking about it, it became clear that it wasn't the film or material that repelled me but the central character, Troy Maxson, which Washington bravely decided to play himself. Troy is 53-years-old and embittered. He works collecting garbage in Pittsburgh and is hounded by both the highs and lows of his life - the one high point being a flirtation with major league baseball (but while there was still a color barrier) and the main low point being a prison sentence (for an accidental murder).
Wilson achieved something truly daring with Troy. He created a politically incorrect character with almost no redeeming value. Troy's arrogant, destructive behavior makes empathy or sympathy almost impossible. He's repellent. Here's a man who screws over his brain-damaged veteran brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), screws over his disregarded older son, Lyons, from a previous relaltionship (a very good Russell Hornsby), screws over his seemingly despised younger son, Corey (Jovan Adepo) - and in an especially petty and vindictive manner - and who, worst of all, screws over his loyal wife, Rose (Viola Davis), with a jaw-dropping lack of regard.
Troy has a very curious sense of entitlement.
Exacerbating matters is the man's penchant for relentless pontificating and grandstanding, non-stop monologues of self-regard that remind us that "Fences" is very much a filmed play. We could pity Troy - he's a tragic figure - if he just wasn't so awful. And Washington ferociously tears into the role as if it were a raw slab of meat, refusing to lighten it or finesse us.
It's tough to watch. Several people have complained to me recently about Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" being "depressing." Well, frankly, I found this film much more daunting and depleting.
Watching the actor go at it, I wondered if Denzel Washington, Movie Star, was a distraction - if audiences are able to see past his prevailing image as a good guy and take Troy for what he is. Like James Earl Jones, who created the role on stage, Washington's image is one of intense integrity. It makes me wonder if the casting of a Jones or a Washington is crucial to "Fences. Does the "right" actor makes Troy more tolerable for audiences?
Also problematic but less so is Rose who (by my count) has at least three moments in "Fences" during which she describes all that she gave up for Troy, the dreams that she denied. And she speaks with authority - and with an articulate quality that belies her situation. She comes across as such a strong, independent and eloquent woman - or at least her words do - that one wonders exactly why she would put up with Troy for 18 years.
Would a real-life Rose be like this Rose?
It's these reservations that made "Fences" fascinating to me. It's like I saw another film, not the one being raved about in those lavish ads.
Note in Passing: Although it's been noted that Wilson produced the movie script for "Fences" just before his death in '05, there have also been rumors that playwright Tony Kushner was brought in to do some ghostwriting. Wilson receives sole screen credit for the screenplay adaptation, but Kushner's "co-executive producer" credit is rather telling.