(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington
“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.
Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.
He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.
This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.
Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.
The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.
That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.
The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.
As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.
It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.
This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.
REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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