A fastball on the outside corner: Fences

Fences (2016)

Like a long filmed play, Fences at least relies on some outstanding performances that compensate for the film’s lack of visual inventiveness

Fences


Di­rect­ed by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton. Screen­play by Au­gust Wil­son, based on his play “Fences.” Star­ring Den­zel Wash­ing­ton, Vi­o­la Davis, Stephen Hen­der­son, Jo­van Ade­po, Rus­sell Horns­by, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sid­ney.

As many peo­ple may well re­mem­ber, there was a lot of dis­cus­sion last year sur­round­ing the lack of di­ver­si­ty and racial rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the Acad­e­my Awards. This year, like a sign that there are peo­ple try­ing to cor­rect that mis­take, not one but three films cen­tered on African Amer­i­cans are nom­i­nat­ed for Best Mo­tion Pic­ture of the Year (al­though women, on the oth­er hand, are still not rep­re­sent­ed at all among the nom­i­nees). These films, how­ev­er, are so dif­fer­ent from one an­oth­er, in struc­ture, style and even tone. But un­like Moon­light, for in­stance, which is also based on a the­ater play and yet man­ages to be es­sen­tial­ly cin­e­mat­ic in the way it uses its vi­su­als to ex­press more than just words, Fences is ver­bose and feels like a long-filmed play.

Writ­ten by Au­gust Wil­son, who died in 2005 but had (near­ly) com­plet­ed the screen­play based on his own play, Fences takes place in 1950s Pitts­burgh and fol­lows African Amer­i­can waste col­lec­tor Troy Max­son (Den­zel Wash­ing­ton) who once had dreams of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sion­al base­ball play­er but was con­sid­ered too old (though he strong­ly be­lieves that he was passed over due to his col­or). Now he lives with his wife Rose (Vi­o­la Davis) and their son Cory (Jo­van Ade­po), try­ing to raise his fam­i­ly the way he can. But when Rose tells him that Cory is be­ing scout­ed by a col­lege foot­ball team, Troy de­cides to ruin his son’s chances of achiev­ing the suc­cess he nev­er did, claim­ing he doesn’t want to see him fail (like him) but ob­vi­ous­ly do­ing so out of jeal­ousy too.

Re­ly­ing on a con­stant di­a­logue ex­changed be­tween the char­ac­ters, Fences gives away its the­atri­cal ori­gins right from the first scene. Not that this is a prob­lem per se, but the gen­er­al rule in Cin­e­ma is “show, don’t tell,” and so it can be tir­ing af­ter some time to see so much ex­po­si­tion in a film that doesn’t try to do any­thing more cin­e­mat­ic. The pro­duc­tion de­sign is quite ba­sic, recre­at­ing a few Pitts­burgh streets of the 1950s with its old cars and clas­sic shades of brown in a mod­est way. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy is dis­creet and un­ob­tru­sive, us­ing most­ly fixed shots, while Den­zel Washington’s in­vis­i­ble di­rec­tion ba­si­cal­ly tells us we should fo­cus our ex­clu­sive at­ten­tion on the di­a­logue, the per­for­mances and not much else.

With re­spect to that, at least, the film doesn’t dis­ap­point. Den­zel Wash­ing­ton of­fers an in­tense per­for­mance and couldn’t be more com­fort­able in his role af­ter hav­ing played it 114 times on Broad­way. Troy is por­trayed as a man of ex­pan­sive per­son­al­i­ty who likes to tell sto­ries about the time when he de­feat­ed death. He drinks heav­i­ly and feels guilty for hav­ing pur­chased his home us­ing the pay­out the gov­ern­ment gave his broth­er Gabriel Max­son (Mykelti Williamson) af­ter a head in­jury in the war left him men­tal­ly im­paired. Hard-head­ed and proud, Troy be­lieves in re­spon­si­bil­i­ty and that it is his duty to hard­en Cory for a hard life as a black adult. “I’m the boss,” he says, not re­al­iz­ing he is just as abu­sive as his fa­ther was — and Wash­ing­ton shines in a scene when he talks about the abuse he en­dured and his own crooked past.

Vi­o­la Davis is also ex­cep­tion­al, play­ing a de­vot­ed wife who stands by her hus­band even if she is aware of his ter­ri­ble flaws. Rose’s ex­pres­sion when Troy lets her in on some shock­ing news car­ries a lot of dif­fer­ent feel­ings and is only matched by a re­veal­ing mono­logue in the end that should earn her every award this sea­son. “Some peo­ple build fences to keep peo­ple out, and oth­er peo­ple build fences to keep peo­ple in,” Troy’s best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Hen­der­son) tells him, about the fence Rose asked Troy to build around the house. Rose wants to keep her fam­i­ly in, and it is touch­ing to see her frus­tra­tion and sad­ness af­ter she re­al­izes she gave eigh­teen years of her life to a mar­riage and was re­ward­ed in the worst way pos­si­ble.

As Cory, Jo­van Ade­po does a re­mark­able job too, and the same can be said about Rus­sell Horns­by, who plays Troy’s es­tranged son Lyons. There is a great di­a­logue be­tween the two broth­ers at the end of the film that im­press­es for the good act­ing, and Ade­po finds the per­fect tone for his char­ac­ter as a de­ter­mined young man who re­fus­es to be like his fa­ther. The hos­til­i­ty be­tween fa­ther and son es­ca­lates into a de­press­ing fight scene that only made me hate Troy even more — and I re­al­ly don’t like how Fences tries in the end to force an al­most im­pos­si­ble sym­pa­thy on us to­wards such an unlov­ing, em­bit­tered and hor­ri­ble per­son.

Los­ing some of its strength and drag­ging a bit with a rather long run­time, Fences be­comes tir­ing af­ter a while. But de­spite that and a cheesy end­ing in which a bunch of peo­ple look dumb­found­ed to the sky, the film has some out­stand­ing per­for­mances that, com­bined with Wilson’s ma­te­r­i­al, are suf­fi­cient to de­serve our at­ten­tion.

Feb­ru­ary 26, 2017


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