Greetings again from the darkness. Just about any use of words you can think of serves some part in this screen adaptation of renowned playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winning stage production. It first hit Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the leads, and the 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis – both who reprise their roles for the movie version. It’s also the third directorial feature from Mr. Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher).
The story takes place in mid-1950’s Pittsburgh and is a family drama character study centered on patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro League star and ex-con, who now works days on a garbage truck before coming home to his wife Rose of 18 years (Ms. Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo, “The Leftovers”). The Friday night after work ritual finds Troy holding court in his backyard with his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), as they share a bottle of gin and pontificate on the injustices that have landed them in this place and time.
Another regular Friday occurrence is the drop-in of Troy’s son by his first wife. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who shows up on payday for a “loan” from dad. To say there is tension between the two would be an understatement, and it’s the complex relationships between Troy and everyone else that is the crux of the story. Another player here is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who periodically wanders by talking about battling demons and hellhounds. See, Gabriel suffered a severe head injury during WWII and now has a plate in his head but no real place in society.
Troy is a proud and bitter man, unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing. Instead he holds firm to his belief that the white man will always hold back the man of color. It happened to him in baseball (though actually he was too old by the time Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers) and he refuses to believe Cory can succeed in football despite his being recruited by a college. Troy jumps between charming and caustic, and his fast-talking bellowing style can be entertaining, enlightening, condescending and intimidating … sometimes all of the above within a few sentences.
There is magic in the words of Austin Wilson, and as a film, this is a true acting clinic. The performances keep us glued to the screen in each scene. Denzel is a dominating presence, and the single best moment belongs to the terrific Viola Davis. Her explosive release conveys the agony-of-the-years, the broken dreams, and the crushing blow of broken trust. As a viewer, we aren’t sure whether to stand and applaud her or comfort her with a warm hug. The only possible criticism might be that the stage roots are obvious in the film version. The theatrical feel comes courtesy of the sets which are minimal and basic with no visual wow factor. But this minor drawback only serves to emphasize the characters and their interactions.
It’s pointed out to us (and Troy) that fences can be used to keep things out or keep things in. During his pontificating, Troy uses a couple of phrases more than once: “Living with a full count”, and “Take the crooked with the straight”. He often waxes philosophical, and it’s through these words that we realize both he and Rose took their sense of duty and responsibility so seriously that they both lost their selves in the process. Making do with one’s situation should not mean the end of dreams and hopes, and it certainly gives no one the right to hold back anyone from pursuing the path they choose. While watching the actors, don’t miss the message.