The world has not been kind to Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). Though he had outstanding talent on the baseball diamond, he couldn’t break the color barrier of the majors the way Jackie Robinson did, despite a high batting average. Troy knows that his failure is because “the white man” controls the game, but his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), quietly reminds him that maybe baseball wasn’t interested in someone over 40. That makes no-never-mind to Troy. What matters is his ability to hold court in his backyard for his oldest friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), and their trusty Friday pint of vodka.

Troy proclaims not to need the bottle, saying that he only drinks a pint after work on Fridays with Bono, but as stories will out, Troy’s brushes with alcoholism become clearer. On Saturdays, while his wife is at church, Troy heads down to the local bar to listen to the game but staggers home after one too many, puffy and soft with a large potbelly from a lifetime of letting go.

Other than bringing Rose his garbage man pay every Friday, Troy contributes little to their Pittsburg home. He talks constantly about building a fence around the yard, but he procrastinates the actual work required, blaming his absent son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), for not helping. Most build fences to keep others out, but in Troy’s case, that fence might be to keep him in.

Fences is the third time Washington has stepped behind the camera, and, thankfully, he has yet to shy away from the front. Fewer actors are as captivating as he, and when Washington bites into a story, he makes a five-course meal out of it.

Adapted from the 1983 stage play from August Wilson, Fences is almost nothing but stories. As to be expected from an actor who directs, the film showcases some of the finest acting you’ll see. Washington excels, Davis is outstanding—both won Tonys for the stage revival in 2010—Henderson, Adepo, and Russell Hornsby (as Troy’s adult son from a previous marriage) are all compelling and go toe-to-toe with the hurricane that is Denzel.

The only sour note is Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s brother who suffered a head injury in World War II and now has a metal plate where his skull should be. How he has become Troy’s burden contributes to the narrative, but Williamson’s simpleton approach to the character is uncomfortable at best and offensive at worst.

Gabriel isn’t the only knock against Fences. There is a quality to the movie that feels like a filmed play, but Washington brings his material closer to classic Hollywood by presenting scenes in long takes with deep focus. Washington captures all the player’s actions and reactions in the same frame. Washington’s greatest asset is his cast, and he knows that when Davis is on screen, you let the camera linger. Washington does, and the results are impressive. Sure it’s a filmed play, but it’s one hell of a play.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Fences (2016)
Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by August Wilson, based on his play
Produced by Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
Paramount Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 139 minutes, Opened Dec. 16, 2016.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 21, “You’re gonna carry that weight a long time.”