Denzel Washington directs and stars in this powerful, respectful, occasionally shouty screen version of August Wilson’s 1983 play about an unhappy working-class African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh. It’s muscular, solid, sturdy – all those things you expect from classic mid-to-late twentieth-century American drama. Washington and co-star Viola Davis play struggling husband and wife Troy and Rose Maxson, embracing the theatrical DNA of the film. (Which is unsurprising considering that they starred together in an award-winning 2010 Broadway revival of the play and that Wilson, who died in 2005, is credited as the film’s writer.)
Most of the action takes places in and around the Maxsons’ home as Troy’s resentments and weaknesses spill out into daily family life. Troy has difficult relationships with his two sons, and his behaviour finally brings his marriage to breaking point. The past doesn’t just hang over the present, it shapes it: the Maxsons’ house is funded by compensation paid to Troy’s psychologically damaged brother Gabe, injured in the war. Troy himself has never recovered from his career as a baseball player being cut short as a younger man.
It’s easy to throw accusations of staginess at film adaptations of theatre like this, which honour the limitations of theatre and make only limited attempts to open up the play. But there’s a hothouse atmosphere to this domestic drama that works well on screen, even if the symbolic power of the fence itself – which Troy is building in his backyard – must have had more resonance in the theatre. Washington is very good, if a tad too sympathetic, but it’s Davis – hurt, proud, determined – who’s the star of this show.