You don’t get groundbreaking cinema from “Fences,” but what you do get — two titanic performances and an immeasurable American drama — makes up for that.
The film is perilously close to filmed theater, but out of respect rather than lack of imagination. Directing his third feature film (after “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007), Denzel Washington adapts August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning play and stars alongside Viola Davis, both of them re-creating their own Tony-winning performances from the 2010 Broadway revival.
As was said about another flawed theatrical hero, attention must be paid. Troy Maxson (Washington) is a larger-than-life character in 1957 Pittsburgh, a legend to his friends (and to himself) and a tinpot tyrant to his wife, Rose (Davis), and two sons, grown Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and high school football star Cory (Jovan Adepo).
Troy was a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues but aged out before Jackie Robinson (of whom he does not speak well) broke the Major League color barrier. He now works as a garbage collector with Jim Bono, an adoring crony played by the peerless Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Manchester by the Sea”). Troy’s still enough of a fighter to win a promotion to driver early in the film, but the bitterness that has festered in him for years blooms over the several months during which most of “Fences” takes place.
As director and visual dramaturge, Washington could have opened the play up far more than he does. Arguably, that would have ruined it. “Fences” stays literally close to home, in the drawing room and kitchen of the Maxson home and especially in its back yard, with a tethered baseball to taunt the hero about his lost chances and a half-built fence that takes on gradual mythic weight as the drama unfolds.
This play is sixth in the chronology of Wilson’s 10-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” one play for each decade and many of them masterpieces (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson”). Each play dramatizes and mulls over different aspects of the black American experience; many deal with the fraught relationships between fathers and sons; all are rich with living language and personalities. Wilson, who died in 2005, took territory that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller had explored and made it his own, and in a climactic scene in which Troy rails against the figure of Death he senses coming in on the storm, “Fences” approaches the majesty and tragedy of “King Lear.”
It’s a meaty, showy part for Washington and he knows it. While his Troy lacks the brute heft conveyed by James Earl Jones, who originated the role (and also won a Tony) in 1987 — the “largeness [that] informs his sensibilities and the choices he has made in life,” according to Wilson’s opening description of the character — Washington’s interpretation is leaner, meaner, smarter. His Troy is more actively an architect of his own downfall.
The other actors go up against this performance as best they can. Adepo grows sympathetically from boy to man as he tilts against the father who’s shutting down his future. As Troy’s brother Gabriel, a damaged WWII veteran who serves as the play’s holy fool, Mykelti Williamson shoulders the hard task of making a problematically stage-bound character work in a more realistic medium.
It’s Davis, of course, who goes blazingly toe to toe with her costar, just as Rose’s bone-deep weariness acquires anger, articulation, and strength over the story’s emotional long haul. There has been some confusion among those who obsess over movie awards as to whether Davis gives a lead or supporting performance here. That reflects a sly truth about “Fences,” one that Wilson almost certainly wrote into the play: What begins as a story about a man who fills up every room he’s in becomes a testament to the woman who endures and outlasts him.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by August Wilson. Starring Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 140 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some suggestive references).