Movie review: Denzel Washington creates showcase for play in 'Fences'

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

Stage-to-screen adaptations can be tricky business, but they are also known as vehicles for some of the great acting performances in film.

Denzel Washington's big-screen rendition of "Fences" is clearly a labor of love, as Washington stars and directs with an admirable dedication to the source material, a 1983 play by August Wilson that won a Pulitzer Prize.

Troy Maxson (Washington) is a 53-year-old garbage collector working to make ends meet for his family in 1950s Pittsburgh. His love for his family is seldom in doubt, but his stern demeanor isn't exactly warm.

Troy was once a standout baseball player in the Negro leagues, and he holds a bitter resentment toward the current state of professional baseball, postulating that, even at his age, he could outplay some of the existing big leaguers, even as black players were increasingly introduced to the league.

Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) is the heart of the family, a steadfast example of a wife who is loyal to her husband and family even against her own needs. His son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), has dreams of playing football as a means to get a college education, but Troy's singular emphasis on hard work and a hard life causes friction.

Washington returns to the role he played in a 2010 Broadway revival that landed him a Tony nomination, and his heart is so deeply in this performance, it's easy to see why. "Fences" is no pet project or Oscar bait. It's an earnest presentation of Wilson's work, and his words are often poetry.

Davis was also Tony-nominated in the 2010 Broadway production, and her performance is a searing look at a woman standing by a man who often doesn't seem to deserve her. Oscar nominations for both could well be in the books.

Of course, one of the downsides of these adaptations is simply that movie and stage experiences are different beasts. "Fences" does succumb to some of these, as most of the film is set in Troy's backyard. Washington doesn't do much to break free cinematically, although the production does create a real connection between the audience and characters.


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3½ stars out of 4