Fences (2016 Paramount, Bron Creative, Escape Artists, Scott Rudin Productions)
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney.
Directed by Denzel Washington.
Producers: Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington.
Written by August Wilson. Cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Edited by Hughes Winborne.
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career, but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players. He tries to be a good husband and father, but his lost dream of glory eats at him, and causes him to make a decision that threatens to tear his family apart.
I don’t think this film was marketed correctly. The television commercials leave the impression this is a story about a bitter father who’s taking his anger at never getting his shot at greatness out on his son. Well, that’s part of the storyline in Fences, but hardly the entire plot.
Set in post-WWII Pittsburgh, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson; a charmer, a bullshitter, a guy full of opinions about everything, a guy still carrying anger over not getting to play Major League baseball because of the color of his skin. But the grievances don’t stop there. In his world, everything revolves around Troy because that’s how Troy wants it. In his world, Troy is owed better than he has it. Sometimes he goes out and gets it, but usually, he ends up on the stoop on Friday night, bitching about it as he shares a pint of gin with his best friend, Bono, while Troy’s wife Rose looks on from the kitchen.
It doesn’t take long to figure out Fences is an adaptation from a play. It’s two solid hours of dialogue; truly an actor’s movie. I say that as a credit to Denzel Washington, who not only plays the lead role but also co-produced and directed Fences. Rather than short takes and quick cuts, the actors envelop the set, stretch into the scene and pull all the emotion and drama out of every line of dialogue. I love movies that allow the actors to be actors. That is the real strength of Fences.
As an actor in Fences, Denzel is…well, he’s Denzel freakin’ Washington. The man can make you love him and hate him in a film. In Fences, he manages to do both. Initially, Troy seems like a charismatic, life-of-the-party kind of guy. By the midpoint, Troy’s demons and his self-centeredness make you hate him.
Speaking of performance, the best scenes revolve around Troy and Bono, who’s played by ohhhh, THAT guy actor Stephen Henderson. There is a natural rapport between the two as they hash over the injustices at work, their wives’ cooking or Troy’s sons. Viola Davis gives a masterful performances as Troy’s wife, Rose. She’s tough, compassionate and carrying her own struggles as she tries to balance her needs against her husband’s selfishness. Even Troy would admit Rose balances him out most of the time. But what does Rose do when Troy’s selfishness forces her to make even greater sacrifices of herself?
The undercurrent throughout Fences is Troy’s deep-seated anger and frustration, which he forces upon everyone close to him, one way or another. Whether it’s his mooching son, Lyons, or his athletic, teen-ager son Cory neither can do right by him. It doesn’t take long to see Troy for who he is: an angry narcissist. But his family and friends are forced to bear the weight of all his decisions—good and bad—including brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), whose WWII injuries left him with permanent brain damage.
In the end, Fences is about family in all its dysfunction and imperfection. It’s about a man who, in his heart, believes he always does right by everyone…even when he’s clearly not doing right. It’s an emotional tug-of-war that leaves each character constantly asking how much more can I give and how much more can I take? The answers to those questions don’t always come with happy endings. Perhaps that’s the strength and the lesson in Fences. You have to learn to accept people for who they are, because holding onto the anger doesn’t make it any easier.
***-1/2 stars (out of five)