August Wilson tuned his ear by listening to the cadence and diction of the people in his working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where most of his plays are set. When Fences premiered in 1983, the language was a welcome breath of smoggy, industrial air in the pristine, over-enunciated theater, and ever since it's remained one of the most frequently produced scripts in America. Fences puts black lives in the center of their own stories, but the fact remains that most African Americans have not felt invited to the theater to see it. This screen adaptation, a wide release starring and directed by one of this country's last true movie stars, is vital because it has the potential to reach marginalized communities. But it also stands as an aching, lyrical, performance-driven masterpiece in its own right, a film so intense and engrossing that movie theaters really should screen it with an intermission.
Washington plays Troy, a 50-something garbage collector whose good-natured cynicism on topics like his failed baseball career (pre-Jackie Robinson) can turn on a dime to thinly veiled anger. In these moments, Washington's signature laugh becomes almost weaponized. Meanwhile, Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) and youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) dodge Troy's wrath.
Washington takes an actors-first approach to his direction, but he's also not easy on his own character. As the years pass, Troy says dumber and more hurtful things to Rose until she finally breaks and lashes out, tears and snot flowing freely down her face -- Viola Davis at that moment becomes the people's champion. Washington chooses to focus his camera so attentively on Rose, she slowly becomes the central figure in this Fences.