Thanks to the one person that voted since Wednesday! Due to your whim, I watched Fences.
Fences (2016) 4.5 stars out of 5
Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Nominated for four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Davis), Best Adapted Screenplay
Well, I’ve been standing with you! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!—Rose Maxson
Adapted from an August Wilson play by Wilson himself (he passed away in 2005; Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner finished the screenplay in early 2016), Fences takes place in 1950’s Pittsburgh and tells the story of Troy Maxson (a titanic performance from Washington), a man striving to take care of his family while struggling with his inner demons.
The play Fences was originally part of a ten-part series of plays Wilson called “the Pittsburgh Cycle,” which aimed to explore the evolving African-American experience and the state of race relations in America. Fences didn’t so much touch upon race relations, but delves deeply into how the world was changing for African-Americans at the time. Troy is a modern-day Okonkwo (the protagonist from one of my personal favorites, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe); he is set in his ways and refuses to acknowledge the world is changing around him, even the changes that benefit him. He is haunted by his past: he ran away from home when he was 14 after his father sexually assaulted a girl Troy was seeing, and he’s bitter about the loss of a professional baseball career; he was in his forties when Major League Baseball started allowing black people to play and was deemed too old to play. He is constantly trying to do what he believes to be the right thing, but his notions are outdated in a world where black people are getting more and more advantages in life. He fails to adapt, and that’s ultimately his downfall.
Troy is constantly weighed down by his responsibilities. His oldest son, from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is in his thirties but, as a musician, has never held down a real job and is constantly hitting Troy up for money. His younger son, Cory (Javan Adepo), is being touted by colleges for a football scholarship; Troy believes that Cory is throwing his future away by relying on football. Troy also takes care of his younger brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who was rendered mentally handicapped after getting shot in the head during WWII. The government paid Gabe $3000 as compensation for his injuries; Troy takes the money as Gabe’s guardian and uses it to buy a house for his family, for which Troy feels extremely guilty. In this middle of all this is Troy’s wife Rose (Davis). Rose is quiet, composed, and tries her hardest to keep the family together in the midst of Troy’s brooding, looming presence.
Fences is carried by the electric performances of its cast. It’s not going to wow anyone with its cinematography or anything like that; its success lies with the enormous presence the cast has. This is probably Denzel’s greatest performance; he’s like a dangerous animal on screen. Every word he speaks is full of emotion and the viewer can see that this is a role that he lives for. He’s matched stride-for-stride by Viola Davis. Rose spends most of the film in the background, quiet but firm. It isn’t until she realized her husband isn’t who she thinks he is when we see the ferocity inside her. If Anne Hathaway can win an Oscar for being in a movie for five minutes, then Viola Davis will run away with hers simply for the scene in the trailer above. I started weeping when that scene was over.
The supporting cast was phenomenal as well, especially Williamson as Gabe and Stephen Henderson as Troy’s best friend Jim Bono. Very rarely does a cast come together with such cohesiveness and ease; it’s really what makes this such an exceptional film. They’re so good that it wasn’t until a few hours after I finished the film that I realized that Fences didn’t really escape from its stage roots. Some of the dialogue didn’t translate onto the big screen—especially all of Troy’s honestly incessant baseball metaphors—and that sort of spoils the magic that the cast works so hard to cast. It would’ve stood a really good chance of winning Best Picture if not for that drawback, which is too bad since Fences is such a powerful, moving film.
Having not seen any of the other Best Actor pictures, I don’t have a full idea of how well Denzel stands up to win Best Actor, but I definitely would not be surprised if he won. He’s just so good; you just can’t take your eyes off him. I would cry shenanigans if Viola Davis doesn’t win Best Supporting Actress—which, I learned, was her choice, campaigning for Best Supporting Actress. That way, according to her, she had a better chance of winning. I also didn’t realize that Arrival and Moonlight were also competing for Best Adapted Screenplay; I feel like the race is between the two of them, with Fences losing out.
Fun Fact: Everyone in the cast was also in the 2010 revival of Fences on Broadway.
Scene to watch: Cory asks Troy why he doesn’t like him; Troy explains that liking him is not in the bargain. But honestly, Washington and Davis are so good, any scene is worth watching.
Why you should watch it: It’s one of the best acted films I’ve ever seen.
Why you shouldn’t: It can be a little slow at times. Also, don’t watch if you hate baseball analogies; there are SO MANY.
Let me know what you thought of Fences in the comments below! Also, please help me pick what movie I should watch next by casting your vote!