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Denzel Builds a Masterpiece in 'Fences'

With costar Viola Davis, Washington paints a painful family portrait

Rated: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 18 minutes

Stars: Jovan Adepo, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Denzel Washington, Mykelti Williamson

Director: Denzel Washington

Troy Maxson smiles as he slings trash into the maw of the garbage truck he rides through the streets of Pittsburgh. He smiles when he comes home to his adoring wife, Rose. And he smiles when he sips whiskey and recalls his days as a Negro Leagues baseball player.

But don't believe Troy's smile: It's a grin of defiance in the face of despair. In the words of Maya Angelou (and 19th-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar before her), Troy wears "the mask that grins and lies."

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in 'Fences'

David Lee/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Rose (Viola Davis) and Troy (Denzel Washington) share a tender moment in "Fences."

Among its many blessings, the great miracle of Fences — the family drama based on August Wilson's 1985 Pulitzer-winning play — is how Denzel Washington (who also directs) transmits the pain and frustration of his character through one of Hollywood's most radiant smiles. His Troy, wise beyond his years and eloquently cognizant of the injustices around him, is nevertheless no hero. He's just a guy — a guy so intimately observed by Washington and Wilson (the latter also wrote the script) that by the time Fences is over, we fear we might know him a little too well.

Troy has a multilayered life. He takes pride doing his best on the job, and when we meet him he's hatching a plan to move from the back of the garbage truck to the driver's seat — a position no black man has ever attained in Pittsburgh. He's fiercely attached to his self-image as the breadwinner; he can scarcely go 10 minutes without crowing to Rose (Viola Davis) and their sons, Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), about his ability to "put my food in your belly." Troy dotes on his brain-damaged brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and feels deep guilt over living in a house that was paid for by a legal settlement linked to Gabriel's condition. He drinks too much, seeks out conflict too much … and harbors a painful secret that could destroy his 19-year marriage.

Washington and Davis both won Tony Awards playing their respective roles on Broadway in 2010, and their stage chemistry translates seamlessly to the screen. Their affectionate moments as Troy and Rose have all the authenticity of a home movie; their occasional minor arguments entail the perfectly timed snaps and exquisitely aimed barbs any long-married couple will recognize.

But late in the film, when Troy unloads a howitzer of a news flash on Rose, the long-suffering woman spins to a harrowing emotional level she's never experienced before. Here Davis unleashes a scene of raw, shattering power: Tears streaming, nose running, gulping between sobs, Rose is appalled and disgusted by what she's just heard — but also horrified at the realization that, after 19 years of carefully measured emotional calibration with this man, she has at long last lost control of herself. Until this point in Fences, Davis has been the film's anchor. Suddenly, in one masterly stroke, she becomes its dramatic engine.

The supporting cast in Fences is worthy of the leads. As Troy's best friend, Jim Bono, Stephen McKinley Henderson is a welcome bundle of laughing, joshing good cheer. The part of Gabriel — an innocent bystander who occasionally stumbles onto the scene to punctuate certain moments — is a type that works best on stage, but Williamson (Bubba Blue from Forrest Gump) is nevertheless endearing in the role. And as Troy's younger son — the prospective college athlete who ends up paying a hefty price for his father's bitterness at having been excluded from major-league ball — Adepo provides a poignant contrast of youth and hopefulness.

The storyline of Fences requires that Troy disappear from the action for the final act, and the film misses Washington mightily during that time. He's never really gone, of course; before his death in 2005, Wilson had stipulated that any film version of Fences could be directed only by an African American, and Washington has stepped behind the camera with spectacular results. He infuses Fences with the unique mix of jagged drama and soft humanity that typified Wilson's best work — a melancholy acknowledgment of a society that promises opportunity with one hand while holding an unfavored few at arm's length with the other.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.