In ‘Fences,’ Denzel Washington channels a timeless character with gusto

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Broadway roles as Troy and Rose Maxson in “Fences.”  David Lee, Paramount Pictures

Denzel Washington delivers a leonine, devouringly powerful performance as one of American theater’s most imposing patriarchs in “Fences,” a classic of contemporary dramatic literature that has finally received a respectful, often stirring, adaptation for the screen.

Washington takes on directing duties as well for a film that was adapted by playwright August Wilson before he died in 2005. As a piece of cinema, “Fences” doesn’t swing for the go-for-broke limits suggested by the title. Stagy, speech-y and limited mostly to a scruffy back yard of a working-class house in 1950s Pittsburgh, it often feels confined, even when Washington’s camera ventures out to a neighborhood bar or workplace.

But the constricted atmosphere is precisely what is called for in a rich character study of a man bursting with pent-up resentment, thwarted potential and masculine pride. As the film’s ferociously charismatic protagonist Troy Maxson, Washington roars and keeps on roaring, serving up Wilson’s angry soliloquies not so much as verbal arias as alpha-male rituals of dominance and aggression. As he prowls his own postage-stamp sized piece of turf, Troy emerges as a figure every bit as mythic, contradictory and classically combative as his name suggests.

There may not have been city sanitation workers in Euripides’s time, but Wilson imbues Troy’s profession with welcome gravitas and heroic meaning. As “Fences” opens, Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) are just finishing their shift, with Troy loudly complaining that the better-paid drivers’ jobs are unavailable to African-Americans. When the two repair to Troy’s backyard to share a bottle of gin and repartee, Troy’s talk continues, escalating into an exuberant recollection of when he “stared down” death during a bout of pneumonia.

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With Washington seeming to grow steadily more tipsy in real time, the sequence announces in no uncertain terms that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller – a spinner of yarns for whom narrative has become both a prison and armor against a world in which, he says later, he was born with two strikes already against him.

Part of the audience’s fascination with Troy is how swiftly he conjures dramatically competing emotions: One moment we’re sympathizing with him for not getting his shot as a professional baseball player, and the next he’s running down star players by pooh-poohing the Negro Leagues. One moment he embodies the kind of strength and self-reliance for which the American working class is deservedly lionized, the next he’s cruelly stamping out the ambitions of his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who wants to play football for his high school team.

Overseeing Troy’s combustible mix of rage and remorse is his wife Rose, portrayed by Viola Davis in a magnificent performance rooted in stillness, but bursting with passion, life and – when the plot takes a devastating turn – superhuman fortitude and self-sacrifice. (Washington and Davis are reprising roles that earned each of them a Tony Award for the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences.”) Other characters come and go, including Troy’s adult son by another marriage, and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a brain-injured war veteran whose perfunctory appearances feel more symbolically convenient than organic.

As Gabriel’s name suggests, the specter (or promise) of heavenly reckoning is a constant presence in “Fences,” which among its many virtues gives the lie to this era’s facile condemnations of identity politics. In this surpassingly American story, we see how historical and structural realities inscribe themselves into our most personal traumas and triumphs. The fates and legacies that clash and enmesh themselves throughout “Fences” are just as much products of Oedipal psychology and personal trauma as the Middle Passage and the Great Migration.

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Those forces come together in the swirling vortex of Troy’s psyche in “Fences,” which takes the measure of its unruly main character, down to the last troublesome inch. Wilson’s writing and Washington’s generous performance allow the audience to revel in Troy’s spiky humor and brusquely delivered home truths, even while wincing at his capacity for self-deception and brutishness.

Ringing with both ancient wisdom and searing relevance, “Fences” feels as if it’s been crafted for the ages, and for this very minute. Like all timeless personalities, Troy is a man for our era, whether he’s coming at us in full roar or by way of a far more haunting whisper.

Three and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Opens Sunday. Contains mature thematic elements, obscenity and some sexual references. 139 minutes.

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Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.