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'Fences' movie review: Denzel Washington & Viola Davis' towering performances live up to the Oscar hype

17 February 2017 - 15:19 By Tim Robey

When August Wilson's 1983 play 'Fences' premiered on Broadway in 1987, just about everyone involved - including its two leads, James Earl Jones and Mary Alice - won Tony awards.

The feat was repeated for the 2010 revival, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in those parts.

Often perceived as a black dramatist's rejoinder to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, this tale of a struggling family in 1950s Pittsburgh continues to be held up as one of the great African-American plays, with a main character - the wildly flawed Troy Maxson - who could teach even Willy Loman a thing or two about failure.


For its first half at least Fences is stagey, demanding and slow. Washington is belligerently committed to doing the text justice, so much so that it's Wilson who gets a posthumous screenplay credit (and Oscar nomination).

It's not easy making a play this hefty fly compellingly on screen. One supporting character, though thankfully just the one, is flat-out bad, thanks to combined sins of clichéd writing and performance.

There's also a whole world of metaphor that belongs more naturally on stage - like the running stream of baseball parallels that Troy uses to communicate his woes.

Once a very promising Negro League slugger, he missed his chance to play in the major leagues, for which he blames pre-Civil Rights-era racism. The truth, Wilson is willing to insinuate, may be more complex.

On the cusp of alleged greatness, Troy went to prison for 15 years for manslaughter, leaving a son, Lyons, from a defunct relationship.

For the last 18 years he's been shovelling complaints at his eternally tolerant wife Rose (Davis), and they've had their own son together, Cory, whose ambitions in American football Troy disparages, predicting that the white establishment will thwart his dreams, too.

Troy has become an aggrieved garbage collector, working with a best friend Bono (excellent Wilson vet Stephen McKinley Henderson), who he met in prison.

Bono is the only one with an inkling about the news Troy has, and which brings the whole film to a screeching, traumatic halt midway and socked to us all the more powerfully as a result.

WATCH the trailer for Fences


Sensational in her slow-burn bewilderment, Davis will win an Oscar here - the wrong Oscar, technically, but let's not get too hung up about that. Troy has 10 times more lines than Rose does in the early scenes and he's frequently a bore. But the second half of the movie belongs to her.

There's a moment when Troy embarks on yet another baseball analogy, and Rose asks him what the hell, despairing at his inability to level or understand.

He's about to wreck their lives, out of the blue, and still keeps banging on about second strikes?

The great coup Washington delivers is the risky, brilliant, and frequently alienating performance he gives as Troy. It's such an abrasive headline act, rubbing our faces in the man's dissatisfaction, force-feeding his rhetoric, threatening at every turn to squander our sympathy.

As film-making Fences has its limits. But with these two going at it, a caged heat blazes all the same. - The Daily Telegraph


• This long-awaited film adaptation of the August Wilson play remains stagey, but as a showcase for two towering performances it could hardly be improved. — Catherine Shoard, The Guardian

• Though its dialogue can be harsh and its protagonist can be a monster, it has some important things to say. — Paul Asay, Plugged In

• Washington has pledged to bring all of plays in the cycle to the screen. He started with a home run. — Nancy Churnin, Dallas Morning News

• This article was originally published in The Times.