REVIEW: Fences [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 138 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Denzel Washington
Writer(s): August Wilson / August Wilson (play)

“A fastball on the outside corner”

It seems that many people have been docking points from Denzel Washington‘s latest directorial effort Fences by labeling it as “too theatrical.” Well, that’s somewhat hard to avoid when you’re dealing with August Wilson‘s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play and its wall-to-wall dialogue touching upon love, responsibility, race, and politics on an emotionally resonate level beyond much of what Hollywood delivers “cinematically.” I’ve personally never held a stagey aesthetic against a film as long as the performances prop up the script’s location shortcomings and ensure every word uttered is done so with pure authenticity. Mike Nichols accomplished this success with his debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (one of my all-time favorite plays and films) and Denzel does the same here within this intimate 1950s-era Pittsburgh backyard.

The play originated in 1983 with an amazing cast consisting of James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, Frankie Faison, and Courtney B. Vance. Wilson aspired to bring it to the big screen too if only he could find an African American director to helm. That sadly didn’t happen within his lifetime (the playwright passed away in 2005), but he drafted a screenplay nonetheless in hopes it would. Fast-forward to 2010 with Washington and Viola Davis staging a revival winning them both Tony Awards along with the play and it’s no surprise they’d reunite five years later to carry its Broadway appeal into multiplexes across the country. Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby agreed to reprise their roles and the result proves nothing short of an acting clinic.

What’s funny is that the best parts to me are the ones you couldn’t get onstage. So much of Fences‘ almost two and a half hour runtime deals with two or three characters in heated conversation while others may or may not be silently listening with obvious discomfort in not wanting to get involved. There’s a lot of hypocrisy going on—a lot of supposed compassion by way of self-interest wherein the man leading the charge (Washington’s Troy Maxson) refuses to see how times were changing enough to realize he was a spitting image of his father and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) one of him. It’s great seeing veiled cringes or muted looks of acquiesce from those in frame, but it’s something completely different seeing those off-screen.

It doesn’t happen often, but Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who does so much with confined spaces) sometimes provide eavesdroppers behind walls. We see the fear in Gabe’s (Williamson) expression as he sits at the table while Troy shatters his wife Rose’s (Davis) world. We feel Lyons’ (Hornsby) empathy and pain as he lowers himself into a kitchen chair while his half brother Cory struggles to mine below the surface of how their father treated them: with tough love, not a lack of it. These moments say so much without saying anything because there’s an inherent complexity to every action on display. We’re privy to a circuitous cycle created by impossible circumstances. Every time we think Troy learned something, the opposite is revealed to be true.

There are Cory’s collegiate football hopes being dashed by his father. The boy believes Troy’s refusal to be happy is rooted in jealousy and he’s half correct. It’s not jealousy that Cory may prove better than his old man, but the jealousy that he has an opportunity to backstop the volatile choice of professional sports with a trade in case it all implodes. There’s the notion that despite everything Troy went through (the details of which should be left to Wilson’s magnificently written, hyperbolic and fantasy-tinged stories his lead speaks with a gin-soaked smile), he came out with a devoted wife and a life worth living. His best friend Jim Bono (Henderson) saw this turn of events and latched on until it happened to him too.

But nothing is ever as it seems and nothing is ever perfect in a “Leave It to Beaver” way regardless of race or economic standing. The Troys of the world aren’t wired to explain their motivations beyond extreme psychological punishments pushing their sons farther away. The Troys of the world are never satisfied with a “good” life like Bono when distractions continue promising something a little bit better instead. And the idea that life stifles your ambitions and dreams isn’t yours and yours alone. You can be selfish to the point of risking everything good that ever happened to you, but never seek pity. Never ask for understanding from the person who stood by you despite experiencing the same crisis of identity each day without acting upon it.

It this regard Washington—no matter how amazing in this role of hidden depths as a husband, father, son, and friend—is far less revelatory than Davis as Rose. Here’s a woman that epitomizes 1950s housewife with a public face of strength and joy against a private one of cautious optimism and quiet suffering. We watch her set Troy straight when his stories get out of hand or too “macho.” We watch her undying love for this man despite knowing he has some demons that he simply won’t let her help alleviate. But she isn’t some caricature bolstering harmful stereotypes of what a “wife” should be. She’s allowed her moment to speak her mind and admit choices she willingly made with regret and those now supplying renewed vitality.

Rose is the glue precariously holding this family together for better or worse, seeing the good in each cog even if it’s often difficult to look past the bad. We feel a release resting on the horizon during her early scenes with each disapproving glance responding to Troy’s ego getting the better of his humanity. We just aren’t quite prepared for the catalyst’s full scope or her reaction’s visceral power. Davis and Washington handle the resulting control shift beautifully—their interactions with each other reversed despite nothing on the surface changing. She grows stronger as he accepts his waning moral superiority as false. Rose might not receive what she had hoped, but she rises to the occasion anyway. Troy on-the-other-hand becomes exactly what he promised he never would.

No matter how much respect we may lose in his blue-collar garbage man, we cannot deny he didn’t accomplish what he sacrificed his very self to do. Life throws the Maxson clan more curveballs than most (just look at Gabe’s reward for serving his country) and Troy strikes out more than his fair share, but this era measures success by one’s children. The lesson here (beyond its supernaturally-tinged epilogue) is that all we can ever aspire to do is give our kids the best parts of ourselves. We give them what we didn’t have and we pray they don’t fall into the same traps we fell into. If we can’t learn from our own mistakes, hopefully they can. Maybe then the pain wrought will be worth it.

[1] Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Viola Davis plays Rose Maxson in Fences from Paramount Pictures. © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Jim Bono and Jovan Adepo plays Cory in Fences from Paramount Pictures. Directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson. © MMXVI Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel in Fences from Paramount Pictures. Directed by Denzel Washington from a screenplay by August Wilson. © MMXVI Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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