Good for Denzel Washington. No, let's amend that -- great for Denzel Washington.
He is one of America's best and canniest film actors. He seldom if ever makes a commercial misstep. (His last action movie was a decent remake of "The Magnificent Seven" in which he played the Yul Brynner part.)
"Fences" is not a misstep, but then it's not a commercial film at all. It's a statement film. It's Denzel Washington, bankable big-budget movie star, reminding people, as both actor and director, just how serious he is about what he does.
Here is a first-rate adaptation of a prize-winning playwright who was a pillar of African-American theater until his death. It was August Wilson himself who insisted the director be black when his play was filmed.
It's almost funny how little interest Washington has in disguising that "Fences" is nothing more than a filmed play. Sure, some of it takes place in a tiny backyard. Or in the Pittsburgh street in front of the house. Or in a bar. But much of it initially is a gale of dialogue on a set you could fit on a stage. It couldn't give a rising curtain about what the old screenwriters used to call "opening up" a play. In that sense, it hearkens back to movies like "Separate Tables" and "A Raisin in the Sun" which were pleased as punch to be theater through and through.
Much of the first act dialogue is torrential; it's meant to be delivered bravura with words and metaphors cascading forth into the audience's lap.
Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a retired 53-year-old baseball player for the old Negro Leagues. He was so good in his prime that he got seven home runs off of the great Satchel Paige. He has lived into the era where Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Don Newcombe have made it into the major leagues but not yet enough of his old comrades to believe that white America openly welcomes black athletes.
"Times have changed, boy," chides his old friend (played by Buffalo's Stephen McKinley Henderson). "You just came along too early."
Troy is a garbageman now. His life had been a rocky one after baseball. We learn later just how rocky it was.
The Negro Leagues didn't exactly pay very well. Even the daughter of the great Josh Gibson--the Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues--was always "running around with raggedy shoes on her feet," says Troy.
At 53, he's old enough to no longer consider death an abstraction. But it's nothing he fears either. So he turns it into a metaphor in the gin-soaked stories he motormouths into the atmosphere.
"Death ain't nuthin' but a fastball on the outside corner," says the old slugger. "And you remember what I used to do with those."
When he's telling another story, he imagines death as "a white boy with a clipboard" from the furniture store.
Wilson was a great playwright. Maybe not always and maybe never quite without reservation but even at his best--in this Washington adaptation--his work is riotously alive. It has poetry, fire, wild humor and big emotion.
Troy has been married for 18 years to Rose, who is played by Viola Davis. Her role has been almost comically manipulated to maneuver her into a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. If she's a "Supporting Actress" then Bud Abbott was a "Supporting Actor" to Lou Costello. She's almost that much of a co-star in "Fences" -- which, to understate, couldn't possibly benefit this film more.
I can't blame anyone for insuring as much post-season hardware as possible. Washington, as either actor or director, is unlikely. It's not that his performance isn't as affecting as Casey Affleck's in "Manchester By the Sea," it's just that this is no longer a Hollywood era when people like to give statues to those perfect for film roles because they've already grooved their performances on the stage (Washington played Troy in 114 stage performances).
Troy Maxson is a volcanic man -- angry, egomaniacal, charismatic and with a big personality to match his former baseball talent.
He has a grown son who is a musician and is always asking for money on Friday afternoons. He has a teenage son with Rose who wants to better Dad's success as an athlete -- in his case in football.
Troy, though, can't believe that a life of reward has been opened up for black athletes. He doesn't want his son wasting his life in sports. He can't imagine the world that's to come.
He also has a secret life too which we never see at all and only hear about two thirds of the way through. It is a powerful wrench from Wilson reminding us to take nothing in this tale too lightly.
Troy is irresistible when he's talking. But he's also unforgivable.
It's a big part (James Earl Jones' DNA is all over it). Washington, bless him, gets to inhabit every charismatic inch of it.
To no one's surprise, Washington loves turning this into an actor's show for just everyone--Davis, most of all but also Mykelti Williamson as Troy's brother, who has a metal plate in his head after nearly getting his head blown off in World War II.
Washington is telling us that "Fences" is classic American theater so it should jolly well bid fair to be classic American filmmaking too.
It's not all of that but it's wonderful to see in every way.
I must confess a reservation about the play, particularly the climax. That's where we are encouraged to think of Troy as more folk-figure than human being. Frankly, the movie we've seen Washington act in and direct is too convincing and powerful for me to do that. It assumes that I feel one way when, in fact, I feel another entirely.
Heartening, though, it is in almost every way.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Director: Denzel Washington
Rating: PG-13 for language.
Running time: 138 minutes.
The lowdown: Denzel Washington's version of August Wilson's classic, prize-winning play about a bitter veteran of baseball's negro leagues and his railings at his family.