Movie Review: ‘Fences’ Remains True to Form

Making a film adaptation of a play is never easy to do, but the performances by Denzel, Viola, and crew pull it off and successfully expands on the iconic backyard Pittsburgh setting that playwright August Wilson illustrated on stage.

Growing up in Pittsburgh and being familiar with the arts, playwright August Wilson was like a deity among theater folk such as myself.  In my late teens and early twenties, I remember studying this man and his work. I even got a chance to meet him in passing, but those were the days before social media and camera phones, so therefore no proof of this meeting exists. 🙁

I remember even having to do an assignment where I had to read Fences and then go see the play.

I remember being so inspired after seeing the play, that it made me want to write a few stage plays of my own, a few that I still look back on and revisit to take trips down memory lane.

I remember being amazed at how such a small urban/rural setting such as being in a family’s backyard, which is where essentially the entire story of Fences takes place, was able to capture so much life and energy.

Because of this small setting, and Hollywood’s tendency to get away from the original works of art when producing films, I was highly curious as to how they would treat this essential plot device of this story needing to be confined within a small space although it’s now on the big screen.

The film is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which first hit the scene in 1983. Although Wilson passed away in 2005, he was able to finish the screenplay for this film adaptation before his death.

The project finally got off the ground with Denzel Washington hopping onboard and eventually becoming its director. Washington has turned in a bold, powerful interpretation that does right by its source material. It’s sure to be a major Oscar contender with Wilson likely to receive a posthumous screenwriting nomination.

Washington not only directs, but also stars as Troy Maxson which is a role Washington previously played on Broadway. Troy is a middle-aged husband and father struggling to get by in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Much of “Fences” is set in the Maxsons’ small, cramped patch of backyard, but the film doesn’t feel stagy, because the cinematography gives it a crystal-clear flow, and Washington, as both actor and director, gets the conversation humming with a speed and alacrity that keeps the audience jazzed. Wilson’s dialogue is a marvel – soulful, naturalistic, and profane, at moments downright musical in the snap of its cadences. And Washington tears through it with a joyful ferocity, like a man possessed. Which, as we learn, is just what Troy is.

Troy was once a professional baseball player, a star of the Negro Leagues, but it was Troy’s bitter fate to come along a generation before Jackie Robinson. He never found fortune or fame from baseball, and he can’t accept that the game is now opening up for others.

When he dismisses the new black players, and even Robinson himself, claiming that he’s better than all of them, his gripe is rooted in an honest perception of the racist past, but it’s also rooted in the bigheaded wrath of his own ego.

Troy tries to do right by his children, but often comes up short. His eldest son (Russell Hornsby) aspires to be a musician while his youngest son (Jovan Adepo) could score a college football scholarship.  Troy doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the success he was denied so he doesn’t agree with their life choices, firmly believing that a black man can only make a living through manual labor. Every time Troy is given a chance to mend his relationship with his sons, he strikes out, which becomes the recurring theme throughout the film.

Troy thinks society will never change for the black man, so he turns that belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also fused with his jealousy. He comes on like an honorable fellow, and in certain ways he is, but he’s also a jerk.  Washington’s performance keeps both sides of Troy in beautiful balance, so that he never seems more humane than when the full extent of his demons is revealed.

Washington delivers a raw performance as a man who’s easy to despise, but is also easily identifiable. However, the film’s best performance comes from Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. A role that Davis also portrayed on Broadway.  Rose is a fiercely loyal spouse who stands by her husband through thick and thin. She is by no means a pushover, though. Through love, dedication, and subtly, Rose knows how to take control of almost any situation. She may let Troy think that he wears the pants in the family, but Rose is the one truly running the show.

The acting is all superb. At the moment Troy’s selfishness is fully revealed, Viola Davis delivers a monologue of tearful, scalding, nose-running agony that shows you one woman’s entire reality breaking down. For a few shattering moments, when she talks about her family of half-brothers and half-sisters, it drags the fallout from America’s racist past right into the glaring light of the present.

There are very few words to describe what Denzel, Viola Davis, and Mykelti Williamson  accomplish in this film. But appropriate words might include perfection, committed, astonishing, heartbreaking and passionate.Williamson’s, Gabriel, is perfection as the ultimate empathetic foil to Mr. Washington’s hurricane of rage, humor, disappointment and life. This collection of veteran actors, who have benefited greatly from living in these character’s skin for an extended period in a previous stage production, are among the finest ensembles to grace a screen.

Diversity became one of the most talked about topics in show business after the #TheOscarSoWhite social media campaign. While Hollywood still has a long way to go, you could argue that studios are slowly starting to give us more diverse films. 2016 was an especially strong year for African-American ensemble pieces, from Moonlight, to The Birth of a Nation, to Hidden Figures. Ava DuVernay’s 13TH also stands out as one of 2016’s best documentaries, demonstrating that it was a great year for African-American talent behind the camera too. Fences is yet another marvelous film with a black director and primarily black actors. Race and ethnicity aside, though, this is probably the most well acted picture you’ll see all year.

From a directorial standpoint,  Fences isn’t the most epic or cinematic movie of the year. However, it’s not supposed to be. Washington wisely keeps his film small and intimate, but still overflowing with humanity. Although the film is clearly based on a play, you can still feel every emotion as if you’re watching these performers on a stage.

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