This is likely the best film of 2016. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington in the title role of Troy Maxson, with a very strong supporting cast, consisting of Viola Davis as his wife Rose, British actor Jovan Adepo as their teenaged son Cory, Russell Hornsby as Troy’s adult son Lyons (from a previous relationship), and journeyman actor Stephen Henderson as his coworker and close friend Jim Bono.
The setting for the film is Philadelphia, 1950s. Troy Maxson is a sanitation worker, along with his best friend/confidant Jim Bono. They go through their job hanging on the rear of a city garbage truck, relieving city dwellers of their refuse. It’s a low skill but decent paying job, and hey, somebody’s gotta do it.
The film’s main theme is the frustrations of life beating down on Troy. Troy is dissatisfied that there are no black drivers of the garbage trucks. The drivers are paid a better wage, and the work isn’t as tough as hoisting garbage cans all day. Troy wants to be a driver, and his bosses with the city aren’t happy about it. Sanitation workers are union employees, and Troy has enlisted his union’s help in breaking the color line of separating him from his desired position. Troy’s friend Jim, while older than Troy, isn’t about to buck the system, but as a friend of Troy lends him morale support in Troy’s quest to rise up the ranks. Every Friday is ‘buy a pint day’ with Troy and Jim, whereby they polish off their gin in the back yard of Troy’s house after their workday. Troy’s wife Rose apparently is a housewife, and she is usually busy with housework and supper when the two men arrive in the back yard to finish off the pint and talk about the old days. Rose isn’t hard on the eyes, and although modest, maintains a polished look about her, always presentable when Troy arrives at home from work. Their teenaged son Cory is a standout athlete in high school who has plans of playing football and going to college, hopefully on a scholarship.
It is Cory’s sports dreams that get under the skin of his father Troy; it is revealed in the film that Troy himself was a standout baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but was too old to be considered for major league baseball when it became integrated. Troy’s frustration with his own unfulfilled destiny as a pro baseball player eats at him, poisoning his life and leaching into the lives of those who are closest to him. Troy spares no one in spreading his pain around. He is miserable, and he his determined that everyone in his family should feel his pain and frustration with life also, every day.
Troy has an older son, Lyons, a handsome man in his late 20s/early 30s who is a starving professional trumpet player. Lyons occasionally comes around to ask his father to ‘let him hold $10.00” until Lyons can pay it back. Troy has gotten to know Lyons’ routine of Friday visits to borrow money from him (Friday is Troy’s payday), and Troy revels in bringing Lyons almost to the point of groveling for the money. If not for Rose, the two would have likely reached a point of no contact years ago; Rose is the ice-breaker in the Maxson household, the person who always sees the good side of everyone.
Troy’s co-worker and best friend Jim plays two roles in this film; he is Troy’s confidant, and he is also the conscience of the film. Jim listens to every word Troy says to him, usually in general agreement, but he also is there to remind Troy when he strays too far off the beaten path. Jim is older and has seen lots of tough times in his lifetime, and he reminds Troy that while life isn’t perfect, Troy has a lot to lose if he doesn’t stay on the right road. Troy goes through the motions of listening to Jim, but in Troy’s frustration with how his life has turned out, is not content to stay on the right road, which is filled with some serious potholes.
Rose is the pillar of the Maxson household, and she does all in her power to be the glue that holds the family together, despite Troy’s daily attempts to shake their home to its very foundation. Rose knows that she is married to a tortured soul, and she can only do so much to save Troy from his many frustrations that have devoured him over many years. As said earlier, Troy spares no one from the personal pains he wears every day, and he makes no apologies for it, throwing kerosene on fires of his own making. Still, this award winning play by August Wilson is one his finest, and the performances of the cast are not to be missed by those who truly love ensemble acting at its best. This is (arguably) the best that Denzel fans will ever see of him on the big screen, in what has to be the best role of his long career in film; Viola Davis also shines as his long-suffering wife Rose, who has her own frustrations to bear, but manages hers in far better fashion than Troy can ever see.
Of special mention is actor Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel; Gabriel is a veteran of WWII who returned from the war disabled, changed forever. Williams gives a great performance in the role during the two or three times he appears onscreen. You can’t help but pity and love Gabriel in every scene which includes him; his presence is just that powerful.
This is a very powerful film, one that shouldn’t be missed by fans of great writing and great performances by the cast. I would urge such fans to see it.