After the opening shot establishing Denzel Washington and his buddy as garbage men making small talk while driving through Pittsburgh on the back of a truck, the movie closes in, metaphorically fencing in the audience to a small set that could be the staged version of this play. As director, Washington clearly wasn’t interested in opening up the play to be more cinematic - we are watching people whose damaged lives have been circumscribed by their race, their economic vicissitudes, their war experiences and mostly, their character flaws. Troy, the husband and father, was kicked out of his home at the age of 14, ending up in prison for a stint of 15 years, during which he discovered his talent for baseball. Ironically, prison was the only place where he had the freedom to play as he discovered when he was released in the years before Jackie Robinson integrated the sport.
For the first half of the film Troy is seen as the victim of a punishing father and a racist society that kept black men from developing their potential. His saving grace seems to be his happy marriage to Rose, played to perfection by Viola Davis, as a woman with enough strength to accept second place to a blustering, bigger than life man. Rose seems to be a woman capable of working on Tony and getting him to do the right thing despite his protestations to the contrary. She lets him talk his head off, gesture theatrically to his small audience of friend and family, but she pulls him into line when he’s let his steam off and gets him to do her bidding.
Suddenly the plot changes course and we discover that Troy has some secrets from Rose and the audience, ones he appears to feel guilty about initially though this soon gets rationalized into his entitlement as a man. His behavior becomes shockingly dense and abusive and our allegiances turn from his charismatic nature to the quieter less dramatic Rose whose behavior has some surprises for us as well. Though the mise en scene is kitchen sink reality, the language and entrance of minor characters are stagey in a formulaic way. Critics have compared this to Death of a Salesman and that is legitimate in its format as well as theme - there is a dated quality to how the characters interact even when the problems raised are beyond the boundaries of time, place and society’s conventions.
Despite the tendency for the characters to occasionally morph into shorthand caricatures, the film offers an Oscar-worthy performance by Viola Davis and a less subtle one by Denzel Washington who seems a bit too Shakespearean for Pittsburgh. The smaller parts are mostly effective and sometimes too transparently there to telegraph a message rather than allow the audience to grasp it more subtly. August Wilson worked in the tradition of the well-made play and this hits all those marks. To return to baseball for my final judgment, this is a film of a very good game but one in which only Viola Davis hits the ball way outside the park in a luminous performance that will resonate in memory.
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