- on Friday, 23 December 2016 16:17
- by Frank Wilkins
The first thing to know about the Denzel Washington-acted-and-directed Fences is that it is a direct stage-to-screen adaptation of one of August Wilson’s ten The American Century Cycle Pittsburgh-based plays that focused on the African-American experience. Each play was set in a different decade of the twentieth century, with Fences taking place in the 1950’s-era Hill district of Pittsburgh and following the family of Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing baseball for a living before realizing he was too old by the time the major leagues began admitting black players.
The second thing to realize is that Fences runs dangerously close to the confining look and feel of filmed theater. While Wilson’s stage play takes place entirely in a single back yard setting, Washington opens things up a bit by incorporating several rooms of the house and some of the surrounding neighborhood.
Characters come and go through slappy screen doors, narrow alleys, and neighboring yards. There’s even a scene or two that takes place on the back of a garbage truck and one in Troy’s favorite watering hole. But Washington never lets any of it feel like a betrayal to its source material. Finely balancing respect to the source and entertaining the masses in a wide theatrical release is a double-edged sword for sure, but Washington masterfully captures Wilson’s poetic rhythm while the acting clinic put on by the cast makes for an exhilarating experience. From the opening scene to the understated final act, we know we’re in the midst of something great.
Troy lives in a modest little home in a working class section of Pittsburgh and rules tyrannical over his household inhabited by wife Rose (Viola Davis), musician son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and high school football player son Corey (Jovan Depo). He’s revered as a legend by friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
Angered by what he refers to as racism in baseball (not considering he was 40 years old at the time), and prison time for a violent crime he committed years ago, Troy is now just stuck in time, ill-equipped to handle a changing world, and frustrated by his missed opportunity. Troy directs his pent-up anger at son Corey who is being recruited by college football coaches, urging him to, instead, learn a trade – something they’ll never be able to take away from him.
Washington molds his character as a boiling cauldron of a man who is as terrifying as he is destructive. James Earl Jones played the character on Broadway back in the 80s with a booming presence that filled the 46th Street Theatre. Washington brings the character a bit more down to Earth, but is still an imposing presence. At one point, Rose refers to Troy as bigger than life. He certainly is, but his intoxicating combination of charm, relentless stubbornness, and intimidation bring into question his sanity. He’s determined to bring along those around him as he begins a dizzying descent into despair.
Davis plays her Rose with a staggering bravado and defenseless vulnerability that tells us she’s all in. In one particular scene she lets loose with such a fury, tears roll down her cheeks and snot pours from her nose – can’t say I’ve ever seen that before. She’s strong throughout, but this one scene is almost guaranteed iconic status, right alongside Brando’s “STELLA!” and Gable’s “I don’t give a damn.” It’s that good.
Fences should be required viewing for those aspiring to get into the acting biz, and is certainly a must see for film buffs. See it for the acting. It is not necessarily ground-breaking filmmaking nor is the best film of 2016. Though strong in nearly every aspect of filmmaking, from time to time it is mildly hobbled by its pent-up setting, overtly theatrical flourishes, and nearly absent score. With rhythmic threads of poetry in its DNA, and a soul forged of the blues, Fences is a sad portrait of an oversized man with even bigger emotions. We now know where the energy of broken dreams goes.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
Runtime: 138 mins
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Memorable Movie Quote: "Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people buidl them to keep people in."
Theatrical Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Official Site: http://www.fencesmovie.com/
Release Date: December 25, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: March 14, 2017
Synopsis: 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.
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: March 14, 2017