When Denzel Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of "Fences," throngs hoping for a post-performance glimpse of the actor regularly spilled onto W. 48th Street, stopping traffic.
That marked a testament not only to Washington's superstardom, but to the pull of August Wilson's drama about a former baseball player, robbed by the sport's insidious color line of the larger adulation he'd earned.
Now Washington's movie version "Fences" goes into wide release Christmas Day, testing whether a brilliantly acted film rendering of a classic, 1950s-set play can draw the crowds it deserves.
Wilson's Troy Maxson, portrayed by Washington, is a swaggering paradox – a by turns charming, fearsome and frightened man whose verbal explosions pack a wallop akin to the homeruns he pounded out of Negro League ballparks in his pre-Jackie Robinson glory days.
The 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbage collector foils the college football plans of his teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) – partly out of jealousy, partly out of a desire to protect his child from the kind of sports heartbreak he suffered.
Troy loves and relies on his devoted wife, Rose (Viola Davis), yet he threatens to drive her away with his unfaithfulness. He dotes on his shell-shocked brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), yet he’s resentful because he needed his brother’s payout from war injuries to buy his sparse home.
That’s where Troy comes to volatile life – most of all in his backyard, a field of his own where he hits a baseball strung to a tree and slowly builds fences around his property. The fences represent, among other things, the limits foisted on him by racism as well as his attempts to wall himself off from the world as he steers clear of the “devil” – his demons, real and imagined.
The wooden borders lend this dialogue-driven film a claustrophobic atmosphere that adds to the impact, while presenting a challenge to Washington, who also directed. He strives to breathe life into the film through visual details (from the changing sky down to the period Clark bar ad painted on a nearby building) as much as through his masterful delivery of Wilson’s words.
The most telling lines, though, go to Troy’s best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He gently offers a pointed observation – “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in” – along with the stark truth of Troy’s life: “You just come along too early.”
“Fences” came along just in time to notch Golden Globes nominations for Washington and Davis, who won Tonys for their 2010 Broadway performances. The Academy Awards should be calling next for a modestly budgeted, powerful film that dares, in a season of flashy holiday blockbusters, to swing for the fences.