‘Fences’ Review: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis Take Center Stage

Washington’s third directorial effort is his surest yet, honoring August Wilson’s powerful evocation of an African-American patriarch in 1950s Pittsburgh

It’s taken nearly 30 years for August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences” to make it to movie screens since its roiling portrait of an embittered African-American mid-20th-century man exploded on Broadway in 1987. But if anybody was going to do it justice as a film, it’s Denzel Washington.

The stage-trained megastar played Wilson’s Troy Maxson — former ballplayer, ex-con and struggling Pittsburgh garbageman — in a celebrated 2010 revival, and he’s now taken the reins behind and in front of the camera for a film adaptation that amounts to a great actor’s dedicated stewardship of the late dramatist’s considerable gifts. Can you tell it’s a play? Absolutely. Does that mean a damn thing? Not when the writing is this richly evocative, and the cast so often soars with it.

It’s not just Washington in home-run form, but Viola Davis, too, as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose, a role she also played in the Washington-headlined production. Together they bring to vivid life the complexities and contradictions in an 18-year marriage built on a sense of duty neither realized was as fragile as it was. It’s a safe bet these in-the-moment powerhouses will be in plenty of accolade-centric conversations for the rest of the season.

“Fences,” set in 1957, comes midway through Wilson’s ten-play cycle depicting the African-American experience across the breadth of the 20th century. Simultaneously garrulous and caustic, Troy Maxson is a cash-conscious husband and father caught in a changing world: he came up in a segregated era that made him a Negro League sports star and self-reliant bulwark against racism and irresponsibility, and now he finds himself in a new, tentatively inclusive age that he doesn’t trust, especially when it pushes his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo, “The Leftovers”) to think he could land a football scholarship instead of a real job. (That Troy aged out before major-league baseball integrated is an obvious source of acrimony.) When a fearful Cory openly questions whether his dad even likes him, Troy’s scary pushback is to make fatherhood sound like a job he’s got to do, nothing more.

Though it’s too far to call “Fences” plotless — there is the building of a metaphor-heavy fence — the movie mostly unfolds as a tour of Troy’s worldview as seen through interactions with those closest to him. Besides Rose and Cory, there’s his oldest son Lyons (a suave yet vulnerable Russell Hornsby, “Grimm”), whose cash-borrowing visits trigger Troy’s scolding arrogance; Troy’s mentally damaged war veteran brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), about whom he feels immense guilt; and his work colleague and buddy Bono (the excellent Stephen Henderson, “Manchester by the Sea”), with whom Troy is his loosest, happiest self. At a certain point, though, Troy’s broken-record resentments cease to be merely performance, and push him toward behavior that brings real, lasting pain to his loved ones.

If we leave aside the mid-90s TV adaptation of “The Piano Lesson” (and we should), “Fences” is really the first chance to experience how Wilson’s soaring vernacular and offbeat narrative rhythms translate to features. (Wilson, who worked on multiple drafts until his death in 2005, is the credited screenwriter.) Though “Fences” is arguably his most literal-minded play — it’s a ’50s work in not just its setting, but its Arthur Miller-esque unwinding of family tragedy – Wilson’s specialty was torrents of talk that opened up portals of history, experience and desire you could fall into. What results are actor-emboldened exchanges that leap off the screen as in the heyday of dialogue-driven flicks.

When Troy describes a brutal memory of his father, or unspools a heroic fantasy about wrestling the devil, Washington can shift gears with his voice and body until we see a short film in our head. When Davis’s Rose good-humoredly contradicts one of Troy’s rascally anecdotes about their courtship, or later uncorks some bottled-up feelings of hurt and yearning, she becomes a marginalized artist furiously sketching herself into a family portrait she’s felt invisible in for too long. (And can we just acknowledge that even with her back turned to the camera, Davis can relay volumes of emotion? How is that possible?)

Washington’s direction, meanwhile, hews to a respectful solidity of framing and editing that lets actors truly shine as scene partners, while still embodying enough of a widescreen-lensed sense of neighborhood time and place to feel lived-in. In all honesty, there are massive effects-driven movies that feel less outdoors than the real daytime Hill District backyard that is the prime set of “Fences.” Though he allows himself one time-spanning montage as a filmic device, it’s quietly, effectively melancholic, scored appropriately to Dinah Washington singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

The only real drawback is one that belongs to the original play, an overextension toward the end that threatens to dissipate some of the second half’s emotional might. But this amounts to quibbling when you have in “Fences” a movie that shows enough promise for the future of transposing Wilson’s work to this medium, and a pair of actors in Washington and Davis that turn passion, ache, helplessness and regret into the most shimmering of character duets.