Fences (2016) Paramount/Drama RT: 139 minutes Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some suggestive references) Director: Denzel Washington Screenplay: August Wilson Music: Marcelo Zarvos Cinematography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen Release date: December 25, 2016 (US) Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney.
After the dehumanizing experience that was Assassin’s Creed, my faith in the art of cinema has been restored by Fences, a powerful adaptation of the late August Wilson’s (who wrote the screenplay before he died in 2005) Tony Award-winning play. While not an all-out assault on the senses like the video game adaptation, it does put its audience through the emotional wringer with its story of an embittered patriarch who loves and terrorizes his family at the same time, namely his teenage son who just wants his father’s approval. It stars Denzel Washington, who also directs, and Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) as the loyal, loving and tough wife who’s stood by his side for 18 years. Both actors, reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway production, deliver powerhouse performances as does the rest of the cast. Fences is very much an actors’ movie. It doesn’t rely on flashy directorial techniques to convey the emotional complexity of the characters and story. The actors, both literally and figuratively, do all the talking.
Set in Pittsburgh circa the 1950s, the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Troy Maxson (Washington) is dissatisfied with his life. He works as a garbage collector alongside his best friend Bono (Henderson, Manchester by the Sea). Every Friday, he comes home and turns over his wages to his wife Rose (Davis) who’s in charge of the household finances. He then takes to drinking gin and telling wild stories in his backyard where most of the movie takes place. He has two sons; Lyons (Hornsby, Lincoln Heights), a struggling musician in his 30s who regularly hits his father up for money and teenage Cory (newcomer Adepo) who has an excellent shot at a football scholarship. His father is dead-set against it due to his bad experience with professional sports. He never achieved his dream of playing Major League baseball; instead, getting stuck in the Negro Leagues.
Troy must also contend with Gabriel (Williamson, Forrest Gump), his mentally-impaired brother whose disability check enabled Troy to buy the home in which he and his family currently reside. Gabe believes he’s a messenger of God who can open the gates of St. Peter by blowing the trumpet he always wears around his neck. The main drama of Fences centers on the contentious relationship between Troy and Cory who believes his father is holding him back because he’s scared that his son will turn out better than him. In one especially searing scene, Cory asks his dad why he doesn’t like him to which the older man responds by asking what law says a father has to like his son. Isn’t it enough that he gives him a roof over his head and food in his belly?
Fences has many moments like that. It’s a film driven by dialogue rather than action. Not much “happens” save for a few intense arguments, one of which turns physical, and the revelation of a secret that effectively ends Troy and Rose’s marriage. Although deeply hurt- her reaction is the film’s most devastating scenes- Rose doesn’t crumble and fall apart. She’s a tough gal; she’d have to be to put up Troy’s BS all these years. He’s not a complete monster; he can be charming when he wants to be. It’s clear that he still loves Rose the way he flirts with her. He also treats her as an equal partner in their marriage. He has no choice; she’s subservient to nobody. The acting in Fences is terrific. Washington’s character is equal parts tyrannical and charismatic; not many actors could play such a role convincingly. Davis imbues her character with great strength. I see Oscar nominations for both of them. Many of the actors from the 2010 stage production- Henderson, Hornby and Williamson- also reprise their roles. They’re all great. Adepo is a real find; I see great things for this young actor.
The camerawork in Fences is flawless. Sometimes when adapting a play for the big screening, “opening up” (i.e. expanding the physical parameters) destroys the natural fabric and diminishes the power of the work. That doesn’t happen here. While it is stagy in parts, the visual aspects of the film serve the material very well. Depending on the action of any given scene, Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen either dwarf the characters by expanding the scene or provide a sense of claustrophobia by way of tight framing. Washington makes excellent use of close-ups. The dialogue, of course, is brilliant. Fences translates well from stage to screen. It’s heavy and emotionally intense; at times, almost unbearably so. It’s consistently compelling even if it is kind of slow. It’s a movie for mature, intelligent adults who prefer substance to flash-and-dazzle. It’s definitely worth seeing!