The sins of the father are often paid for by the children, and Troy Maxson is a man of many sins.
Denzel Washington directs and stars as Troy in the film “Fences,” based on the play by August Wilson. Despite its slow pace and deceptive marketing as an uplifting sports drama, “Fences” displays the gut-wrenching tragedy of everyday life, and its cast’s performances are steeped with pain and realism.
Troy, a garbage worker in the 1950s, tries to raise a family while facing the racial climate of the day and the demons of his past. On top of the pressures of everyday living, he struggles with finding equal opportunity at work, the tense relationships with his children and taking care of his mentally handicapped brother. The only solace Troy finds are in his memories of playing baseball, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).
Despite working his way up to what Troy considers a comfortable living situation, he is stuck in the past and longs for the life he could have lived had he not been a victim of racist policies of the early 20th century and been allowed to play major league baseball.
Some of the trailers and television spots for the film advertise an inspirational and uplifting film about sports and finding the value of one’s family. The promotional material is misleading since the main focus of the film is not sports, and it is not a happy story with a motivational ending.
Although “Fences” opens with a lighthearted depiction of the Maxsons’ working-class life, the mood quickly darkens into a tense family drama. Dialogue rather than action drives the plot, creating a slow pace that begins to drag in spite of the cast’s powerful performances. For example, the conversations between Troy, Rose and Bono drag on before relevant plot information is relayed. The last 20 minutes provide welcome closure, but at more than two hours long, the film could arrive at that point with a little more urgency.
Sports are mainly used as a metaphor for Troy’s conflict with his son. No football is ever thrown, and the only baseball the characters hit is tied to a tree in the backyard.
Washington was familiar with “Fences” after he participated in more than 114 stage performances of the play’s revival. He won a Tony Award for best actor for the role in 2010 and his comfort shines through in the film.
Washington imbues Troy with charm and convincing emotionality, ranging from euphoric love in his tone of voice when he is around Rose to bitter anger when reflecting on his longing to play baseball in the major leagues.
Washington’s ability to shift his emotions from joyfully joking to harshly critical and demeaning create a convincing depth. His stubborn conviction in his ideals and refusal to apologize for his actions paint Troy as a damaged hero unwilling to accept his own weakness and add a very relatable, human undertone to the film.
Troy’s monologues, both lighthearted and intense, are rousing performances that allow the audience to imagine how glorious of a player he was in his youth. On the flip side, the character’s endless references to how many home runs he can hit and baseball metaphors get tedious.
Rose (Davis) is the moral center of the movie, whose strength helps keep her family together, despite the heartbreak she experiences because of her husband’s careless actions. While the sacrifices Rose made for her family are invisible to Troy, many parents in the audience will likely relate to her struggle and feel her passion.
Rose’s compassion and hurt are the perfect foil to Troy’s stubborn adherence to the code of manhood. Her tearful rant against her husband’s regret over his humdrum life paints a picture of a broken woman pushed too far – the best performance of the film.
The “Fences” cast’s charismatic performances and painful story of regret and nostalgia strike strong emotional cords that make up for the movie’s slow pacing. “Fences” offers the rewarding opportunity to peer through fence posts to gain insight into relevant and powerful characters.