Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson.
An African-American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.
Filmmaker Spike Lee once said that “parents kill more dreams than anybody”, which could not apply more to one of the central themes to Fences. Bitter family man father Troy (played by Denzel Washington, who also directs this adaptation of the 1985 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by August Wilson) is prone to lashing out in every direction of his family, whether it be his children or his wife of 18 years and counting, Rose (played by Viola Davis). Within the first 15 minutes of the film, it becomes evidently clear that his rigid voice is the law of the household, while everyone else walks on eggshells, making certain to never overstep boundaries.
At surface value, Troy seems like a grouchy asshole who is unable to accept that the times are changing. He berates his 17-year-old son for adamantly pursuing football through a college scholarship, claiming that the racial barrier will ensure that he is never a star or success, all due to his own personal underachievements of only being a big fish in the small pond that is professional Negro League Baseball and not cut out for Major League Baseball. Troy even dismisses players such as Jackie Robinson, fueling his faltered, deluded, stubborn personality. He’s also an alcoholic, sometimes enjoys embellishing the truth in stories of his glory days, and is generally one unlikable person.
As the yarn keeps spinning, a darker upbringing is revealed which shaped Troy into both the father and the man he is currently. He also lives by a commendable creed that places duty and honor to one’s family above all, even during situations where his only emotion towards them is disdain. Troy does a number of bad things throughout Fences, but always remains one of the most complex and empathetic characters of the year. He makes it clear that he resents his son while reiterating that he isn’t saddled with the burden of liking him, just putting a roof over his head and keeping him fed. At least he’s taking care of the child. His older child doesn’t exactly get treated with more respect…
As previously mentioned, Fences is based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name, but aside from having a terrific foundation to work from, Denzel Washington directs and acts the hell out of the picture. Viola Davis also gives a powerful turn as the conflicted wife, usually contemplating laying into Troy verbally or fearfully backing down so as not to aggravate the hornet’s nest. Both actors have also performed the play on Broadway and have won Tony awards for doing so, so it’s no surprise that they are exceptional at bringing the material to a different style of visual medium. Expect Viola Davis to assuredly win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The chemistry that she and Denzel Washington share is among the best of the decade, filled with nerve-racking back and forth heated arguments.
Fences as a film also clearly embraces its roots as a play, opening up with an extended sequence of rapid-fire dialogue between characters, sticking to that formula throughout the 140 minute running time. 90% of the movie takes place either in the family household or various outdoor locations (the porch or backyard), as characters weave in and out of locations successfully holding up compelling conversations often regarding race relations and the family’s personal dilemmas. Among the most emotional moments are Troy reaching out and speaking to the Grim Reaper himself. Sure, without context it sounds completely silly, but in execution paints another broad stroke of a man with both good and bad qualities. After all, he is human just like the rest of us.
Naturally, silence is felt more in a film that rarely lets up on the dialogue. Almost every interaction between the various characters starts off jovial and lighthearted, before simmering into an explosive argument and ending in quietness that further emphasizes emotional pain. I suppose it should be a given, but the script is exceptional and hardly, if ever, hits a dull period of talking. The only flaw (if you could even call it a flaw) with Fences is that it’s always apparent that what’s on screen is a play directly translated to the big screen. It is a showcase for acting and highly powerful storytelling, but not much else. When adapting anything, a fine line must be trodden of sticking to the source material and finding a way to reinvent it into something else. Aside from some really well-executed tracking shots, the visual direction is an onslaught of facial close-ups in the same two settings. To be fair, that’s all that can be done when the only mode a film is in is ‘ACTING’.
Regardless, Fences is absolutely worth anyone’s money. It’s a portrait of a very complex man who could be easily dismissed as a worthless ass, but his convictions, along with the depth of the supporting characters around him, make sure to remind us that we are all human and make mistakes, all of which usually come at the expense of our own personal failures.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★