This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington, left, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Fences," directed by Washington.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington, left, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Fences," directed by Washington.

David Lee/Paramount Pictures via AP

In a polarized world dominated by soundbites, August Wilson's Fences offers a dense marvel of emotional and moral complexity. True to the 1987 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play from which the film was adapted, there's nothing simple about the story's maddeningly complex, flawed hero, Troy.

Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, who directs and stars in the role that won him a Tony Award for the 2010 Broadway revival, offers a tough, slow-to-open-up portrayal that leaves you wondering just who this embittered 53-year-old sanitation worker of the 1950s really is.

Jovan Adepo, left, and Denzel Washington in a scene from "Fences."

David Lee/Paramount Pictures via AP

The story drops clues that build over the course of the film, with the biggest being that he was too old to make it as a ballplayer by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Tellingly, he keeps a bat and ball tied to a string in his backyard as a reminder of something he loves and never was fully free to pursue.

Washington doesn't give any sly winks to suggest that Troy isn't difficult as he tries his wife, Rose (a tough, aching Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for the part in 2010) beyond endurance. His Troy is harsh with his sons, belittling the efforts of his older one, Lyons (a vulnerable Russell Hornsby) to try to make it as a musician and undercutting the hope of his teen, Cory (a brash Jovan Adepo) to be recruited to play college football. Cory, infuriated, accuses his father of standing in his way because of jealousy that Troy didn't get the same opportunities.

Denzel Washington, left, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Fences."

David Lee/Paramount Pictures via AP

At first you see only Cory's side, but slowly, as Troy's history and nature become clearer, your sympathies wend back to Troy as it becomes apparent that the world hasn't changed as much as Cory thinks it has in terms of giving a black man an equal chance to succeed. The point is underscored by the show's time period, long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, big as it was, still left so much work to be done.

It's challenging for a film to capture the dynamic in-your-face sweat and immediacy of a play. Washington opts to give something the play can't: a longer, more thoughtful visual overview of the playwright's native Pittsburgh, where the play is set. You can almost feel the hardscrabble grass and smell the cooking in this world of small, close-together homes where folks are barely getting by. Threaded through the bleakness, Mykelti Williamson provides unexpected heart with an otherworldly, childlike innocence as Troy's younger brother, Gabriel, a trumpet-toting veteran with a damaged brain.

Fences is one of the extraordinary jewels in Wilson's crowning achievement: a cycle of 10 plays written about the black experience in America for each decade of the 20th century. Fences is not your typical holiday fare, and many may wonder how anyone can forgive Troy his considerable transgressions. Then again, it's the kind of thoughtful story that may encourage folks to judge less and love more. Washington has pledged to bring all of plays in the cycle to the screen. The good news is he started with a home run.

Twitter: @nchurnin

FENCES

A- PG-13 (for themes, language and suggestive references). 138 minutes. In wide release.

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