In 1950s Pittsburgh, a frustrated African-American father struggles with the constraints of poverty, racism, and his own inner demons as he tries to raise a family.

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Denzel Washington turns the life of a 1950s garbage man into gold.

Bringing a play to the screen is a tricky job, even as cinema audiences now happily turn out for live-streamed plays taken direct from the stage. Open up the play too much and you might lose the intensity that makes it work; work within the limits of the play’s setting and people start throwing around words like “cramped” and “stagey”. Denzel Washington, directing only his third film, doesn’t mess with August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences too much. Most of the action still takes place either in the backyard or inside the Maxon family’s worn but well-maintained 1950s Pittsburgh home. But Washington, who won a Tony playing Fences’ lead on Broadway in 2010, knows that here a roving camera isn’t what audiences want to see. They’re here for the performances, and the screen is hardly big enough to hold them.

We meet Troy Maxson (Washington) coming home on a Friday after a week hanging off the back of a garbage truck. Sharing a pint of gin with his co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) as they relax in the Maxson back yard, Troy seems like a man who has it all: a roof over his head, a clear view of the world, an easy wit, a charming manner, and a talent for storytelling that has everyone – even his occasionally exasperated wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis) – drawn like moths to a flame. It’s only gradually at first that the cracks begin to show. Tales of how he could have been one of the baseball greats become dismissals of every other player, questions about his work lead to worrying calls downtown, being too smart with money to waste it on a television set hides a deeper dissatisfaction with the daily struggle, and that dissatisfaction grows until it blots out all the rest. 

This isn’t a simple story of a man who seems one thing then turns out to be another. Troy is both a good man and bad at all times, someone justifiably proud of his achievements but haunted by the feeling he deserved more. He’s a tough father to teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo), but he has to be – and then suddenly we see how Troy is deliberately holding his son back and passing his bitterness on down the line. He stands by his obligations, handing over his pay packet every week and putting a roof over his family’s head. But that roof was paid for by a lump sum given to Troy’s brother, the trumpet-wielding Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), when he came home from World War II damaged and with a plate in his head. That’s not the last time Troy’s façade of a man doing right by the world will crack. 

"This isn’t a simple story of a man who seems one thing then turns out to be another."

Washington has the showy role here with a string of fierce monologues and he grabs onto it with both hands, never quite burying Troy’s charm even at his worst, never letting him seem complete at his best. But it’s Rose who comes off as the most fully human character here. She knows who Troy is and so long as he does right by her it’s all good between them. That can’t last forever: all Troy’s big talk can’t hide that he’s so haunted by all the things he thinks he’s missed out on he can’t do right by anyone. When he eventually betrays Rose’s trust, Davis gives a searing performance as a woman whose worst nightmare – the one she turned to Troy to escape – has come boiling up out of the ground around her and swallowed her whole. 

Fences isn’t perfect; it's more of an acting showcase than a story, and the weight of being an ‘important’ film leaves it a little stiff, with the final act failing to build on the drama that comes before. But Washington’s performance is a sight to see all on its own, and when Davis roars into life in the second half she’s unstoppable.

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