I had never heard of this play prior to watching the trailer for the movie. I had never heard of the playwright, August Wilson. After watching the trailer, I knew I wanted to see this movie, mostly because it stars and is directed by Denzel Washington and even the snippet I saw in the clip was enough to convince me that this movie would be excellent. What I didn’t know was that I would walk out of the screening wanting to find a way to see all the rest of August Wilson’s plays because this movie is real, profound, and powerful.
The story opens with Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) and his friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) working at their job as trash collectors as they haul trash barrels into the trucks. The characters are revealed via subtle body language and dialogue. We learn that Troy is married to Rose (Viola Davis) and has a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who plays football. We are introduced to Troy’s older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who Troy had before he met Rose. We also meet his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) an ex-soldier who was wounded in the war and due to his injuries now has psychological damage. And we learn that Troy is both a dynamic man with presence but also a man with festering resentments at play in his life.
We soon discover that Troy played baseball when Cory was young, that he learned in prison but didn’t have the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. There is reference to his age being a stumbling block but Troy is fixated on his race being the issue. He attempts to discourage Cory, not wanting to believe that times have changed and believing that his son has little opportunity to make it as a football player. His stubbornness leads Cory to lose a chance with a college recruiter. We also see the exchanges between Troy and Lyons, showing that Troy doesn’t respect Lyons, who only desires to be a musician and has little desire to walk in his father’s footsteps.
Dialogue drives this story as the character’s language and words inform the audience of past events. Troy expounds on his relationship with his father, leading us to understand that he is trying to walk a better life than the one he came from, one in which his father violently beat him and he left home at the age of fourteen. Gabe is the only relative with whom Troy has maintained a relationship and it is shared that the disability money Gabe received is how Troy was able to pay for his house. In fact, Gabe has only recently moved out of the house in order to have his own space. Yet another guilt that we can see eating at Troy.
Despite Rose being a more subtle presence in the story than her husband, she has a powerful effect on the actions in the film as she attempts to repair some of Troy’s choices. But as she explains to her son later in the movie, when she married Troy, she wanted him to fill up the space around her but fails to make him leave room for her in that space. Eventually, Troy’s choices impact Rose profoundly, leaving her stunned and shaken. All of this is developed as Troy builds the fence referenced in the title of the story.
This story is about the life of one man and how he impacts for good and bad those around him. It also examines race relations in Troy’s bitterness over missing out on playing baseball, the Major Leagues opening up to players like Jackie Robinson who Troy dismisses as being lesser than himself. Another element of this is when he asks why there are no black drivers and is promoted for his question to the first one. But the most impactful parts of this story are how Troy effects his family.
The story is nuanced filled with metaphors. As Troy builds the fence that Rose requested and we delve into the reasons for that fence, we find out that while Rose wants the fence to keep her family in, Troy hopes it will keep out the Grim Reaper who he feels he has battled his entire life. There are also many references to a man having three strikes, and Troy references this with his son Cory, explaining that he only gets so many strikes in life and to make his choices carefully. A line from the movie sums up this idea, you take the crookeds with the straights, meaning you have to work with what you are given and you must find a way to deal with the bad choices you make in life.
Another beautiful part of the story are the lines. The dialogue is really what moves this story and it shows in some poetical words. Troy is a storyteller, a man who is never silent and words drive the action of this film. As his friend Bono says of him, you have more stories than the devil has sinners. It is lines like this one that build the story and engage the audience with the characters.
Denzel has done a masterful job both in his performance and as a director. As a director, he has managed to keep the scenery to the minimum necessary to portray the story while bringing in subtle film elements such as camera shots of the neighborhood and vignettes of each character as time passes. His acting is charismatic and he is enveloped in his character. But it is Viola Davis who stood out the most for me. She resonates in her role, a subtle and elegant presence on screen, bringing a female perspective to both the era of the movie and a foil to Denzel’s much louder character. As the story develops, her actions root the story and keep us grounded. It is her that we respect and I felt the most engaged with her as a woman. When she finds her voice with Troy, women in the audience cheered.
This drama is one of the best stories I’ve seen and the dynamics between the characters help show the space that Troy brings to the world around him. It has some darker moments but there is also humor. This is one of the most real stories I have seen and it is a testament to the actors that portray their parts so well. All of the actors are stellar.
This is a drama, very much a play re-worked as a film but that is the beauty of it for me. The words and the action are subtle and the dialogue sells this story. If you are looking for an action flick, this wouldn’t be for you. However, there are universal themes that resonate throughout this picture and I think most people will connect to the reality of it and the characters portrayed. The actor’s performances shine and I found it a powerful drama full of nuance and subtlety.
Rating: 5 stars