Denzel Washington is an actor I actually do think is fairly consistent with singular screen presence, even if I don't personally hold what is often considered his best work in as high of regard as some do. In most cases I still appreciate the performance even if I don't quite love it. Washington here gives his third directorial feature and his third self-directed performance. In his his previous two efforts Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, Washington relegated himself to a supporting role and a secondary lead respectively. In Fences he is front in center for all except the epilogue of the film in his recreation of Troy Maxson, a role he also played on stage. The theatrical background of the material is noticeable with its rich but thick dialogue and limited scope. It is then a challenge in order for all the performers to transition their work from the stage, most are reprising their roles from a production with Washington, to onscreen. The one performer who most successfully transitions to screen is, well, fittingly enough also the man who is directing the film.
Interestingly though it seems from the outset that Washington is going to give a large theatrical performance, though not really the one he gave on stage, as the film opens. Washington after all has never been an actor to shy away from going big. In the opening scenes of the film we basically see the typical end of the week for Troy as he does his work as a garbage man, along with his friend and neighbor Bono (Stephen Henderson). While working then long afterwards Troy is a chatterbox. Washington does this quite well by basically presenting Troy as a man who likes to talk. He only gets bigger though as he arrives home and begins to "entertain" Bono and his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), with various tall tales. Washington plays these scenes like a preacher at a revival meeting with his grand standing, and epic presentation of Troy's tale of a battle with death. Washington goes for a man telling a truly glorious story filled with thrills, and even a bit of comedy. Washington delivers in the grandeur. Quite honestly though, Washington's approach is an actual way to bridge the material to the screen, as well as allude to nature of Troy.
Troy is a man of so many speeches that Washington is able to make those believable by making this sort of style as an essential part of the man Troy is. There is no simplification in this though, this is complex depiction of what Troy is doing. On the surface Washington is quite entertaining in giving such gusto to Troy's stories and at the very least makes it convincing why anyone would bother to listen to the man for a more than a few seconds. Washington's work goes far beyond that as he suggests within it that this whole approach to life is a defense mechanism of sorts for Troy. Washington is extremely effective in the way he twists this preacher facade of sorts in and around. Washington in itself already shows us a man who believes himself to be greater than he is, and he also shows this as a way to warp that message. Although some of his speeches are just these fun pseudo philosophical stories about meeting the devil, a loan officer, or how he he met his wife, there are also more than a few hints to the man's bitterness towards life.
A defining part of Troy's background was that he once had his glory days as a baseball player in the Negro League, but despite his skill never achieved his dreams due to the discrimination of the separate leagues in baseball at the time. In Troy's tirade he will often veer off into the territory towards his hatred of the lot he was given because of that, such as an overt disdain for Jackie Robinson. I actually love the way Washington changes his tempo just a little bit in these moments as he tries to make them as smooth as his "preaching" yet can't help but still come off a bit like an angry drunk yelling in a bar. Washington infuses a real venom in these turns even early on, whenever he is reminded or reminds himself of his position, and does well to show the active effort in his attempt to maintain the facade of some sort of sage. Now I will say this might have gotten old for me, even with the nuance Washington brings within Troy's theatrics, if he also did not prove that they are indeed just that theatrics. Not theatrics in terms of what we are seeing so to speak, but rather are theatrics that Troy is actively putting on, not Washington.
To explain, Washington does not stay at that intensity, we see this even early on. He alludes to this more of when we are first introduced to Troy's handicapped, due to a war injury, brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). This is Troy without an audience, except for his brother who is in a world of his own, and there is none of that bluster from Washington. He shows that act to be the act it is, but essentially giving us Troy beneath it all as he interacts with Gabriel. It's a notable scene for Washington, that he uses incredibly well, since in his moments with Gabriel Washington portrays a moving empathy, which is a limited offering from Troy. In these moments though Washington alludes to this understanding in Troy that this not only is one person who seems to have had picked a worse lot than him, but also he hasn't exactly done right by him either. This is not the only moment in which we are given a quieter performance, which Washington brilliantly uses to establish and earn the those bigger moments. It goes even further than that though in the way Washington illustrates the sort delusions of grandeur that Troy has which are directly echoed by that personal style.
One moment of Washington's performance that I particularly love is when Troy offers a bit of background to his own rough life as a child. It's an amazing scene for Washington as he does start with the showman of sorts but as he actually gets into the meat of the story, Washington shows how Troy can't quite keep it going. He instead falls into the real despair of contemplating his sad past and just faces the truth of that terrible past. It is a moving scene but also so well used by Washington to convey the real nature of Troy. Washington carefully never overemphasizes either side offering the right approach in any given situation that so well reflects the state of the man. There is subtly even in the louder moments though. In the "Like You" speech that Troy gives to his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo), Washington offers a ferocity in the words, yet he completely gives you the sense of Troy's relationship with his son. There is this very specific disdain that Washington delivers that is fascinating as he shows it almost an internalized self-hate while being a direct hate, as though it is less that Troy hates his son he just hates the idea that his son could potentially be what he never could be. Even in the speech though Washington suggests a vague sense of wisdom even in his prideful words in terms of his view that one needs to do right by another, even if Troy himself doesn't live up to that standard.
As the story goes on it soon becomes obvious that Troy is even more flawed as he reveals to having an affair to his loyal wife Rose, refusing to end it even after the revelation. Washington is outstanding in this scene as well by offering such vulnerability in Troy as he delivers these cracks in the man as he attempts to explain himself. He offers the raw emotion of it as Troy is unable to do so to any great ability, and also even shows the man attempting to explain his action by calling upon that delusion of his. Washington in these moments brings hints of the theatrics Troy is known for, in an attempt to dodge the reality in front of him, but always quickly returns to a more down to earth Troy who must see clearly what he has done. Washington does not compromise his character and is incredible in the way his lost of that facade amplifies the man's downfall all the more. As in the final scenes of the film where Troy is basically at his end, with no false delusions anymore at least in terms of being this great man, we see Troy for all he is. His final confrontation with his son is particularly powerful because Washington shows us just the brutal reality of the man through his anger towards the boy, and reveals just the small pathetic man he is in the end. Washington makes such artful use of his strengths as a performer. His work shows such an absolute grasp on the material particularly in terms of wholly understanding who Troy is. I won't hesitate to say this, Washington gives a stunning performance here.