Embraces his dark side in hard

PITTSBURGH garbage man Troy Maxson has got to be one of the ugliest characters in the canon of contemporary American literature.

Actor-director Denzel Washington might well owe the surprise SAG award he received this week from his peers for the unwavering commitment of his performance in Fences.

At no point during the film’s 139-minute running time does he let either the man or his audience off the hook.

Self-opinionated, self-righteous and self-pitying, pretty much in equal measure, Maxson casts such a large and imposing shadow over his household that the family has become bent of shape in their attempt to catch even a sliver of light.

He dispenses his home-grow philosophy as freely as he knocks back the ever-present flask of gin in his hip pocket.

Maxson’s chauvinism might be explained by his brutal upbringing and the era in which the film is set (the 1950s), but that doesn’t excuse it.

The man is so busy railing against the injustices he has suffered that he is blind to those he commits towards those around him.

And he is so eaten up by bitterness at the opportunities he was denied — by the time Afro-American baseball players were admitted to the national league, the gifted sportsman was too old to qualify — that he blocks his youngest son’s chance of a college scholarship.

Maxson’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis) is stoic to the point of saint hood. She stands by her man even when he asks her to be mother to the daughter his late lover gave birth to.

It takes an actress of Davis’s stature to portray Rose as anything more than a victim. For a large part of the film, I struggled with her “wifely” accommodation of such a bore of a man.

But Rose has a couple of killer monologues towards the end of the film — and she explains the choices she has made with eloquent force and a generous, theatrical spray of bodily fluids.

The two actors first performed August Wilson’s play on Broadway in 2010 to rave reviews and Tony awards. Their deep knowledge of their characters shows.

Also reprising their roles from the stage production are Russell Hornsby, as Maxson’s oldest son, a jazz musician, Stephen Henderson as the knowing best friend and Mykelti Williamson, as the brain-damaged brother.

Jovan Adepo, who plays Maxson’s youngest son, Cory, is the only member of the cast that didn’t appear in the play — not that anyone would notice.

Washington’s direction is a little stagey at times, and some of the time shifts are jarring, but Fences is a film of uncommon power and integrity.

And its ultimate message of forgiveness and acceptance packs a hefty punch.