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
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
a mesmerizing stage play that just happens to be flatly directed with a
very bare bones understated style.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
I only wished that the film had finer momentum all the way
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
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.