Synopsis – A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.
My Take – There is no doubt about Denzel Washington being one of the best actors we have ever had! Whether it has been in serious, sober-minded films like Glory, Malcom X & Courage Under Fire, or explosive action films like Crimson Tide, Man on Fire & Unstoppable, or science fiction films like The Book of Eli & Déjà vu, Washington has given all of himself, and then some. And then, like more than a few great actors, he also itched to get behind, as well as in front of, the camera as a director, which he did in 2002 with the excellent Antwone Fisher, and again in 2007 with The Great Debaters. As a result, his third outing, a screen adaptation of renowned playwright August Wilson‘s Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winning stage production, has been on every cinema lovers watch list every since its announcement. The play first hit Broadway in 1983 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the leads, and was revived again in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who have both reprised their roles here. Getting into this film, having never seen the play or being familiar with the story or what it had to say, I must say as soon as the end credits rolled in I was assured that I had witnessed one of the most extraordinary and emotionally powerful film experience of my life. The first thing film-goers should understand about this film is that it is very much a filmed play. As an adaption director Denzel Washington has kept the project as minimalist as possible and there’s good reason for this, mainly as Wilson‘s screenplay is so exciting that there is just no need for big action, large sets nor grandiose cinematography. This film is a great example of how exceptional writing can rivet an audience.
The story follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a blue collar worker makes his living as a struggling garbage man worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. An ex-con, Troy had dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but was deemed too old, and at a time when the major leagues did not want black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, Troy creates further tension in his family consisting of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) of 18 years and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). The Friday night after work ritual finds Troy holding court in his backyard with his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), as they share a bottle of gin and pontificate on the injustices that have landed them in this place and time. Another regular Friday occurrence is the drop-in of Troy’s son by his first wife. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who shows up on payday for a “loan” from dad. To say there is tension between the two would be an understatement, and it’s the complex relationships between Troy and everyone else that is the crux of the story. Another player here is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who periodically wanders by talking about battling demons and hellhounds. See, Gabriel suffered a severe head injury during WWII and now has a plate in his head but no real place in society. Troy is a proud and bitter man, unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing. Instead he holds firm to his belief that the white man will always hold back the man of color. It happened to him in baseball and he refuses to believe Cory can succeed in football despite his being recruited by a college. Troy jumps between charming and caustic, and his fast-talking bellowing style can be entertaining, enlightening, condescending and intimidating sometimes all of the above within a few sentences. Troy is also still troubled by a dark park of himself, one that threatens the eighteen-year marriage between him and his wife Rose. First let me say that this is a powerful, engaging film. Seemingly, however stereotypical, the opening of this film feels like a stage play exposition. Although moving forward I found myself increasingly involved in the life of, to me, a thoroughly selfish, almost despicable, protagonist. I personally see it as less a film about a man coming to grips with prejudice than as a damaged child trying to make sense of a world over which he was unable to reconcile his life. When a boy is forced to become a man at 14, his life is basically trial and error. Such is the case with Troy Maxson. This boy, one of eleven, left home ventured out and only found trouble, made a baby in the process, found a woman after he paid his debt to society, and then was on the straight and narrow. However, men get old and women get old too. There comes a point where find yourself looking around at all you have, all you have obtained through purchase or loyalty, and ask is it enough? Is it enough to have a wife and two healthy boys? Is it enough to have a husband, a good relationship with your stepson and a healthy one with your own? Is it enough to have a girl who sticks by you and a dad who, after giving you some lip, will loan you money? Is it enough to have both parents in the house if one seems to treat you like an obligation when it comes to caring for you? We are told fences are made to keep things, or people, in or out. But it may just be possibilities too we are trying to keep at bay. In the greater scheme of things, yes, he had a menial job, but he did have a job. He has a family that he treats as possessions rather than people. When his son accuses him of not wanting him to surpass his father in life, there is validity to the claim. The quality of the writing is such that, by focusing on the psychology of one man and his own life, and its impact on his family, it makes you think about your own life and certainly your relationship with your father.
I interpreted this as the psychological fences people erect to protect themselves, fences which tragically keep those closest to you out. The conflicts in this film are powerful, like a fist through a wall. Nuances surround the characters so you end up understanding where they’re coming from despite being in agreement or disagreement with many of their decisions. Marital affair, resentments, built up hatred, forgiving your past, trust me there’s no shortage of drama in the film. The only real issue I had was with the third act. Because of how well the first two acts of the film were presented, it was going to be hard to encapsulate all the built up emotion in a satisfying way. It’s not that I found the last third of the film to be bad; I just found it to be less interesting than the set-up. But that just might be the nature of the play. This film stayed with me and made me reflect on the complexity of human beings, on the pain we inflict and joy we infuse and share with others during our brief time on earth. It is such a welcome relief from the formulaic films that audiences are often fed. Much has been said of the performances here, and with good reason. When you pair up Denzel Washington with Viola Davis on screen, you know you’re in for two of the most outstanding performances you’ll see all year and that’s exactly what you get from this film as they’re terrific! Viola Davis will get her Oscar this year, there’s little doubt in my mind. Her Rose is so reserved and subtle for much of the film, allowing Troy’s continual imperfections and abuses to store inside her and chip away at her emotionally until the final straw causes her to erupt near the final act of the film. It’s an emotional and painful performance to observe, and one many, particularly long-time wives and mothers, will find easy to relate to but at times difficult to watch. Before watching this one, I was convinced Casey Affleck would win the Oscar for best actor (for his superb act in Manchester by the Sea). Now I think the award needs to go to Denzel. His portrayal made me think no other actor could have inhabited this role so completely, creating this larger-than-life personality in Troy Maxson. Denzel Washington inhabits his role as one would fit into a perfectly tailored suit. The depth of his character fits him like a glove. The supporting cast fairs well, particularly Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo and Mykelti Williamson. Everyone seems to be working their hardest to do Wilson’s words justice, and their efforts result it what may be the most overall well-acted film of the year. On the whole, ‘Fences’ is a master class performance heavy film that makes you think, reflect, and feel. It’s unfortunate that this film won’t appeal to everyone, especially to those looking for action and extravaganza, but if you’re like me and enjoy watching good actors perform a well-written script, then you’ll be enthralled by every minute of Fences.
Directed – Denzel Washington
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 138 minutes