A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2017


2016, PG-13, 138 mins.


Denzel Washington as Troy  /  Viola Davis as Rose  /  Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono  /  Jovan Adepo as Cory  /  Russell Hornsby as Lyons  /  Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel  /  Saniyya Sidney as Raynell

Directed by Denzel Washington  /  Written by August Wilson, based on his stage play of the same name

There are times during Denzel Washington's FENCES when it feels like an unabridged stage play that just happens to be shot with movie cameras.  

For fans of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson...that's a most welcome thing.  If anything, FENCES - Washington's third film as a director after ANTOINE FISHER and THE GREAT DEBATERS - comes positively alive as a treasure trove of performance riches.  On a slight downside, though, FENCES is an imperfect film with brilliant Oscar worthy acting that frequently struggles as a piece of cinema.  It's a mesmerizing stage play that just happens to be flatly directed with a very bare bones understated style. 

Maybe that's needless nitpicking, seeing as one of the primary pleasures of experiencing FENCES - both on stage and on the silver screen - is for the superlative performances and writing that's chiefly on display and evokes characters of rich depth and complexity.  Washington also stars in the film in a lead role opposite of Viola Davis, and both of them appeared in the play on Broadway in 2010, which further makes watching this movie iteration all the more compelling.  There's absolutely no question that FENCES is an endlessly enthralling piece of slice of life drama that showcases two master thespians at the top of their respective forms, which, on a positive, really helps to elevate the film above its narrative rough patches and less than stellar aesthetic approach from its director.   



Beyond its astonishing acting prowess on full display, FENCES does feel naturally lived in and authentic.  Set in 1950's Pittsburgh, the story introduces us to an illiterate and alcoholic ex-Negro League baseball star named Troy Maxson (Washington), who once had dreams of Major League glory, but when age - and the systemic racism of the time - caught up to him, he realized that he needed more steady and reliable employment to support his wife Rose (Davis).  Now middle aged, Troy spends his days working in sanitation for the city with his BFF Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson), eking out a meager salary to make ends meet.  Even though he has been happily married to his loving wife for nearly twenty years, bitter regret bares down hard on Tony's soul.  He constantly seems trapped in yesterday and the possibilities of what could have been with his baseball career, which is why he frequently explains things in purely sports metaphors. 

Tony is a father twice over, his first child being his adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from another marriage, and his other being his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whom seems poised for achieving some level of prominent athletic excellence that his father once only dreamed of.  Cory seems to have been eyed for possible college football, which could obviously lead to potential professional success.  Yet, Tony refuses to meet with Cory's college recruiter, instilling in his son a rather stubborn and short-sighted proposition that he should instead forget about sports altogether, seeing as his hopes could be dashed as easily as his was all those years ago.  Obviously, this creates tremendous friction between father and son, and when an unforgivable act perpetrated by Tony in secret is revealed to his wife it places even further stress on an already tense family unit. 

FENCES does a solid job of encapsulating the lower-middle working class African American experience of its decade in question.  The film not only explores the nature of race and race relations within its own tight family microcosm, but it also comments of the fragility of family life while living under such social hardships.  A recurring subplot in the narrative revolves around Tony and his son erecting a fence in their backyard...an act that has a multitude of meaning.  Tony wants the fence up to, yes, keep unwanted people out of his property, but it also represents a spiritual barrier that he constructs to keep everyone in his family under his scrutinizing sphere of influence.  The fence is also a metaphorical wedge that's been emotionally placed between father and son that segregates them from the other.  The son feels confident in his abilities to go all the way in football, whereas his father is steadfast in relaying to his son that his aspirations are nothing but a hollow minded pipe dream. 

I found myself gravitating towards Tony as a character in FENCES, but not because he's overtly likeable or sympathetic.  He's a cauldron of lively energy that loves to spin stories of his past, and the manner that he captivates the attention of anyone in the room makes him a dynamic persona.  On some levels. Tony is a laid back and easy going chap that's amiable, but deep down his happy-go-lucky facade masks a man that pathetically and angrily holds on to past wounds that he goes out of his way to ensue that people in the present and in his inner circle feel.  Most fathers, I think, would want their sons to go further in life than they did, especially when their own dreams were squashed.  Tony, though, is so pig-headedly determined to ensure that his son doesn't even try to succeed in sports that he becomes a fairly vindictive individual that's hard to empathize with.   FENCES really pulls no punches with its respective characters. 

Of course, this is bolstered by Washington's tour de force performance here, who does an outstanding job of evoking a man of deep contradictions: he's both magnetically charming and hauntingly deplorable at the same time, and Washington pitch perfectly modulates between the character's agreeable swagger and seedy corruption.  Viola Davis is the film's real trump card in the sense that she has a character arc that's permeated with unavoidable heartache and pain.  Here's a woman that has stood by her husband through all trials and tribulations, only to have her world come crashing down around her because of one of his ill conceived indiscretions.  Her reaction to said indiscretion is one of the most raw and painful to endure moments featuring a character coming to grips with harsh and damaging truth and betrayal as any I've seen.  Her performance is the powerful stuff of Academy Award glory. 

FENCES also greatly benefits from a smorgasbord of fine supporting performances that round off the remarkable work from Washington and Davis.  I think young Jovan Adepo as Cory has a thanklessly difficult task of playing opposite of the powder keg that is Washington here by somehow upstaging him in a few key moments with a serenely internalized strength.  I also liked Mykelti Williamson quite a bit as Gabriel, a mentally handicapped brother of Tony's that suffered a horrendous head injury during WWII that saved his sibling's life, leaving him both a thorn in Tony's side that he feels the need to constantly deal with out of guilty obligation.  Williamson finds a subtle manner of humanizing this character without giving way to camera mugging theatricality.  Rounding off everyone is the calm and soft spoken authority that Stephen McKinley Henderson gives to Tony's lifelong friend, who often serves as a moral compass for everyone around him. 

FENCES is a film that should be rightfully celebrated.  It features an all black cast at the top of their respective forms doing great justice to the inherent hypnotizing allure of Wilson's dialogue, which flows from scene to scene with a fluidity that's frankly lacking in most dramas.  The film also thrusts viewers with a refreshing immediacy into the lives of its characters with a never look back tenacity.  Unfortunately,  I only wished that the film had finer momentum all the way through.  At well over two hours, FENCES is self-indulgently too long and features many scenes that frequently seem like they're struggling to find a manner to end.  And Washington's direction, as stated, seems reticent and flat footed at times.  His repetitively stiff and lifeless framing of his actors only makes FENCES' running time feel all the longer.  If anything, Washington demonstrates an acute affinity for directing actors, to be sure, but as a storytelling visualist with flare, his approach here leaves a lot to be desired. 

Yet, when you have a period drama like FENCES that's as astonishingly acted as it is...maybe Washington's less is more directorial approach was the right one.  Still, watching the film made me want to immediately see the stage version.  Maybe FENCES simply works better as an intimate play than as a piece of cinema, which is ultimately a mixed blessing for filmgoers going in to see it. 


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