It seems appropriate that in his new movie “Fences,” Denzel Washington plays a former baseball prodigy.
The film shows the actor-director swinging for the fences for the bulk of the film’s running time. He’s really looking to knock it out of the park here. His wind-up is good, form is excellent, swing connects and yet … he still only manages a double.
“Fences” takes place in the mid-1950s and tells the story of Troy (Washington), an embattled 53-year-old garbage collector who struggles to provide for his family. The film, based on the award winning 1983 August Wilson play, is set in Pittsburgh. It finds Troy reminiscing about is younger days as a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues. He never managed to crack the Major Leagues, however, due to a combination of an unfortunate prison stint for an accidental murder committed during a robbery and MLB’s still strict color-barrier.
Realizing he is destined for a menial, but respectable, existence in trash collection, he aspires for a promotion at work. He wants to drive the garbage track rather than just lift barrels. He lives with his wife Rose (played by Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Odepo), who clashes with his father over his desire to play football. Troy blames his sports aspirations for the eventual mess his life became in his youth and encourages his son to learn a trade instead.
Troy also has a younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a former soldier who receives a horrific head injury during battle. The injury leaves him with substantial psychological damage. Troy also has another son from a former marriage named Lyons (Russell Hornsby). Lyons comes around the house on occasion to ask for money or request that his father come see him perform Jazz at a local night club. All of these characters intersect as past wrongs are revealed, hidden hurts rise to the surface and painful realities are confronted.
The film’s greatest strength is the performances. When you have Washington and Davis in a movie, especially one this emotionally dense, it’s virtually guaranteed that they will deliver and they do.
Washington deserves credit for not only directing, but also embodying Troy and all of his character failings. Davis is incredible as the long-suffering wife who loves her husband but wants him to consider her long-ignored needs more.
But while they are exceptional, Odepo as Cory is the real revelation here. This young actor, who is making his film debut here and has appeared on TV in shows such as “The Leftovers” and “NCSI: Los Angeles,” is great as the angst-filled son. There is a moment toward the end of the film where he is sitting on the porch with a sibling and just thinking about a song he heard growing up. The amount of raw emotion summoned in that moment feels completely genuine.
But while the performances in “Fences” are wonderful across the board, the film does get into trouble trying to free itself of its obvious stage origins. Perhaps it was Washington’s strict adherence to following the source material to a tee or his desire to play it safe with such a well-regarded play, but the film rarely extends its visual style beyond the limited trappings of the stage dynamic. This means that, much like the play, several scenes just involve actors standing around on a porch, kitchen or living room, and delivering expository dialogue and backstory to the audience.
This makes sense within the context of a play, because there is only one stage and there are only so many ways you can change a set for a scene. Movies, on the other hand, give filmmakers much more freedom to use visuals, editing techniques and flashbacks to convey information to avoid the overstuffed, overly talky narratives.
In the end, I liked “Fences” for what it is — a competently made, well-acted, period piece based on a renowned play. Nothing more, nothing less. It fails to emerge completely from its stage origins and the pacing is slow, but these actors make it a worthwhile viewing.