Review: Fences (2016)

Fences (2016)

Directed by: Denzel Washington | 139 minutes | drama | Actors: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Lesley Boone, Jason Silvis

In his ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ playwright August Wilson describes life in the African-American community in the American city of Pittsburgh in a tragicomic way in ten plays. Each play is set in a different decade in the twentieth century. With his work he gave the predominantly white theater audience a different view of the black American population. He also wanted to let the ‘poetry in the everyday language of black America’ resound in his dialogues. Wilson’s work has been critically acclaimed, including a Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes and five Critic’s Circle Awards. The most famous work from the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ is ‘Fences’, set in the 1950s. The play was first performed on Broadway in 1987, starring James Earl Jones. Twenty-three years later, five years after Wilson’s death at age sixty, ‘Fences’ was re-staged for just thirteen weeks, this time starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Both earned a Tony Award.

Washington also worked hard to translate ‘Fences’ to the silver screen. Earlier plans for a film version got stuck in the pre-production phase, but the two-time Oscar winner persevered and decided not only to take on the lead role, but also to direct. Like Washington, Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby were also willing and available to reprise their 2010 stage roles.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) lives in 1950s Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) in a modest house, which he was able to buy thanks to compensation paid by his older brother Gabriel ( Mykelti Williamson) suffered brain damage during the war. Troy works as a garbage collector alongside his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Every now and then Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s son from a previous relationship, makes an appearance. Mostly to borrow money, much to the chagrin of Troy, who wants his eldest son to find a decent job and no longer pursue a career as a musician. His youngest son Cory turns out to be a talented football player, but Troy refuses the boy to take his chances.

His frustrations run deep; Troy’s mother died when he was young, his father mistreated him. He was still very young when he left home and ended up in crime. When he kills a man during a robbery, he ends up in prison where he meets Bono. Troy can play a decent game of basketball, but he doesn’t get any further than the professional Negro Leagues. Because of his skin color or his advanced age? Troy thinks the first. He does not want to see that times are changing, and that more is possible for his sons than for him then, despite the passionate pleas that Rose makes.

‘Fences’ shows a middle-aged man struggling with the demons of his past. A man who is charming and lively and who knows how to tell tasty anecdotes. After everything he has been through, he is happy that he has a job and he wants to tell his sons that they should not stick their heads above the ground. However, he is rather clumsy and domineering in pushing that will, only driving his children further away from him. He also does not appreciate his faithful wife. Certainly when there is drink in the man, he sometimes exceeds his book. He loves his wife and children, but also hurts them. Rose asks Troy to build a fence around their house (hence the title ‘Fences’); he himself builds it to keep out the Grim Reaper (whom he already outsmarted in his younger years), but for his wife it is mainly a symbol to keep her family together. The fence has a third symbolic meaning, which is the emotional barrier that Troy has erected between himself and his sons.

There is no denying that this is a filmed play. There is a lot of dialogue and all the scenes take place in and around the Maxsons’ house. For director Washington, this offers few opportunities to visually unpack, although that does not mean that no attention has been paid to the decoration. Camera wise it is static and one-sided (despite Washington was nominated for the Oscar for best director). However, that is more than made up for with crushing acting performances by both Washington and Davis. Washington has been regarded as one of the best actors in Hollywood for some thirty years, and he is consistently good, even in mediocre films like ‘Safe House’ (2012) and ‘The Equalizer’ (2014). However, it had been a while since he pulled out all the stops for a role. And that’s how we really like to see him: powerful, dynamic, elusive. Washington gets great response from Viola Davis, one of the best actresses of her generation who grabs the viewer by the throat in both the grand gestures and the more subdued moments. Both lead actors have been nominated for an Oscar; it must be strange if at least one of them does not want to be awarded the coveted golden statue.

In addition to being a masterclass in acting, ‘Fences’ is also an intense story about universal themes such as family relationships, jealousy and a sense of honour, and a beautiful slice of life from the lives of an African-American family in the turbulent 1950s. The story of August Wilson is still rock solid.

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