Fences is about a man who is unable to be empathetic. Troy Maxson, played by Denzel Washington, can only see things from his own perspective and only takes lessons from what he has been through. In that sense, he is unable to handle the changing world and any views that differ from his own he equates to idiots and morons.
Troy comes from a tough upbringing, having an abusive father and being forced out of home at 14. This led him to a life of crime which resulted in jail time. Yet, it was here where his love of and skill in baseball allowed him to refocus himself. He was good enough to play in the Negro Leagues, at a time where segregation in America extended to sports. He made no money from this and learnt that working hard at a job was the way to set up your life.
This translates into his relationship with his son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo). An aspiring footballer who has the chance of a college scholarship, Cory’s dream isn’t dashed by racism but by his father who can’t see past his own experiences to a changing world where players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron are starring for their respective teams. Of course, for Troy, these guys are nothing but second raters, an opinion that is drenched in bitterness at not getting his own shot at the big leagues.
Not only does Troy’s experience of the world shape his relationship with his son, it also blinds him to the sacrifices his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, has made. She rightfully points out that for everything he has been through in the past 18 years, she was standing by his side. That if he felt like he was going no where, she was next to him, also going no where. This inability to empathise leads to a decision that will forever taint this relationship, although the final result of this is forced on the audience as some kind of catharsis, which doesn’t quite hold.
Whilst some of the characterisation is well developed, particularly Troy and Rose, there are some patchy parts. Fences never feels like it fully deals with religion even though it seemingly wants to. Troy has a brother who is handicapped and he is the main vessel for religion sentimentality. This makes the majority of the religious allusions seem to be steeped in craziness. Again, a concluding scene feels out of place, awkwardly suggesting some form of superior being.
It’s quite clear that the film is based off a play. The scenes are few and repeating, yet are never fully utilised. The camera work is basic and stunted at times. One scene in particular, where Rose drops a rose, is very poorly shot. Another questionable shot choice is when Troy is screaming outside his window and the camera is positioned behind him, shifting to an exterior shot once Troy has left the window. A more effective choice would have been to film the whole speech from the exterior, with us watching as the rain trickles down Troy’s face.
Two great performances by Washington and Davis leave the audience with a warning of those who can only learn from their own experience and ascribe their beliefs to everyone else. Whilst the story’s ambition might be higher, it never quite delivers on the other premises it holds. This shortcoming ultimately stops the film becoming something more profound and memorable.