Release: Christmas Day 2016
Written by: August Wilson
Directed by: Denzel Washington
In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.
Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.
The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.
In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.
Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.
As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.
Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.
It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.
Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.
Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.
Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures.
Running Time: 138 mins.
Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”
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