Before “Fences” has even faded in we already hear Denzel Washington’s voice. That is apropos. His voice lords over “Fences.” I don’t mean his auteur voice, considering he directed this film, but his voice voice. There is a traditional soundtrack, yes, sure, but Washington’s voice is the true soundtrack. It’s everywhere, nearly all of the time. At one point he opens a window to holler at God and he sounds louder than the thunder and lightning roiling around outside. Washington has always possessed an authoritative voice, of course, and in everything, from the Oscar winners to the middlebrow box office grabs to the dreck. I don’t remember much of “The Siege” but I remember Washington hollering so hard mid-movie his nose bled. And so it’s no wonder that he would be drawn to “Fences”, August Wilson’s seminal, Pulitzer winning 1983 play, in which a one-time Negro Leagues baseball player turned Pittsburgh garbage man in the 1950s lords over his surroundings with speech since it provides Washington the opportunity to verbally cut loose for damn near two hours. Not that his character is just talking to talk, though he kind of is, though we’ll get to that.
When the film finally does fade in, it finds Washington’s Troy Maxson riding the back of his garbage truck with is longtime co-worker and friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). As they depart the truck, the camera follows them across the street, down the sidewalk and into Troy’s backyard, where we will remain for a good chunk of the movie. Despite the fine set decoration and the very genuinely weary way in which Washington, who also directed, has Troy to plop into his preferred patio chair, this backyard setting comes to feel like a stage, as does the house when the action occasionally moves indoors. Though each character has something to do, usually, sipping gin or knitting or something else, it never feels exactly lived in, with the hustle and bustle of an actual home. There is one moment when Troy has an argument with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) in the front yard and as the action prepares to unfold, you can sort of see all the actors execute their blocking to be in the proper position so as not to interfere with the camera’s view. It’s disconcerting.
That theatricality can, of course, be traced to the film’s aforementioned theatrical roots. It’s probably inevitable. Washington and Davis acted these parts on Broadway too and sometimes you can see how well he and Davis know these characters. In the smaller space of the movie screen, where intimacy is always paramount despite the screen’s size, smaller actions and spontaneity are typically the most important tools, and the larger actions and rehearsed tones of Washington and Davis mean that their byplay can feel…well, not unnatural, per se, but the two actors are so comfortable in the rhythms of these characters that you can occasionally hear dialogue effecting a certain tone rather than being lived out, like the lockstep way in which their lines can arrive right on top of one another.
Then again, for the all the complaints I’ve admittedly lobbed so far, Washington has a specific strategy that I still rather admired. He is mostly content not to try and overly cinema-ize “Fences”, instead putting focus squarely on the words. Because, what words! Big speeches, stinging asides, brutal confessions, funny, funny stuff, the latter never more so than Troy orating on the overratedness of Jackie Robinson which sounds exactly like something Troy would say. Indeed, the failure in baseball still gnaws at him, and be blames it all on white man’s America, which is completely fair, even if you can’t help but wonder if he’s inflating his own past athletic ability. After all, he incessantly trumpets the need for a man to take care of his own house, except it’s eventually made clear that his house was bought by the money Troy’s older brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) was paid for the crippling mental injury he sustained during WWII. In other words, Troy’s self-appointed sage status is something of a fraud, which is precisely what incites these sermons. “You’re not listening,” he declares when he feels like he’s not being heard except the only one who isn’t really listening is him.
Maybe the movie’s best shot is a simple one of Rose leaning against the brick wall, one eye hidden behind the brick, like she has been allowed to be fully present in the face of Troy’s positioning of himself as the man of the house. A mid-movie reveal, however, shifts the playing field as his weaknesses are thrust to the forefront and her strength in the face of such betrayal overrides everything else.
It’s not right to say that Viola Davis steals “Fences.” Because stealing a movie implies a person playing a smaller character sort of doing things on the periphery that become more memorable than what is being done by primary players at the epicenter. Wilson writes the character of Rose so that she assumes center stage and Davis matches that writing with a performance that quietly builds to eventually match the furor of Washington’s. And when it does, Washington does not cede the spotlight. No, Davis rises up, steps into that spotlight and wrests it for herself. She takes over “Fences”, just as Rose assumes the film’s foremost responsibility, a melding that may as well mute all of Washington’s hollering.