Film Review: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in ‘Fences’

Fences
Courtesy of Paramount

Denzel Washington directs and stars in a towering screen version of August Wilson's play about a flawed inner-city patriarch. It's compelling, but also top-heavy with importance.

Fences,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by August Wilson, was written in 1983 and had its premiere on Broadway in 1987. But the play is set 30 years before that, in a lower-middle-class black section of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, and when you watch it now, in the towering and impassioned screen version directed by its star, Denzel Washington, it feels like you’re seeing a work from a distant time, like “A Raisin in the Sun” crossed with “Death of a Salesman.” For long stretches, that slight period remove works for the movie: “Fences” is an anguished family drama forged out of an exotically old-fashioned sense of destiny. Yet if Wilson’s play is on some level timeless, only rarely does “Fences,” as a movie, hit you in the solar plexus with its relevance. It’s more like a long day’s journey into something weighty and epic and prestigious.

The central character, Troy Maxson, is a bedraggled patriarch with a backbone of pride that rules and defines him. Troy works as a trash collector, and when we first see him, finishing his Friday shift and coming home to greet the weekend the way he always does, by sharing a pint of gin with his grizzled co-worker, Bono (Stephen Henderson), he seems an ebullient and centered man. He’s devoted to Rose (Viola Davis), his wife of 18 years, and the sauciness of their back-and-forth teasing lets you know that the feeling is mutual. Troy is so thrifty he claims he can’t afford a TV set, but he has carved out a secure life for his family rooted in their modest brick house. He’s a man shrewd enough to keep his head down and feisty enough to have just asked his supervisor why Pittsburgh has no black sanitation drivers (a chancy question that winds up netting him a promotion to be the city’s first).

Much of “Fences” is set in the Maxsons’ small, cramped patch of backyard, but the film doesn’t feel stagy, because Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography gives it a crystal-clear flow, and Washington, as both actor and director, gets the conversation humming with a speed and alacrity that keeps the audience jazzed. Wilson’s dialogue is a marvel — soulful, naturalistic, and profane, at moments downright musical in the snap of its cadences. And Washington tears through it with a joyful ferocity, like a man possessed. Which, as we learn, is just what Troy is.

He was once a professional baseball player, a star of the Negro Leagues, but it was Troy’s bitter fate to come along a generation before Jackie Robinson. He never found fortune or fame from baseball, and he can’t accept that the game is now opening up for others. When he dismisses the new black players — and Robinson himself — with a righteous harrumph, claiming that he’s better than all of them, his gripe is rooted in an honest perception of the racist past, but it’s also rooted in the bigheaded wrath of his own ego. Troy doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the success he was denied, and that includes his teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has an interview scheduled with a college football recruiter. It’s a doorway to opportunity, but Troy closes it as systematically as Laura’s mother crushes her down in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Troy thinks society will never change for the black man, so he turns that belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Of course, it’s also fused with his jealousy.) He comes on like an honorable fellow, and in certain ways he is, but he’s also an unreasonable hard-ass, like the Great Santini with a touch of King Lear. Washington’s performance keeps both sides of Troy in beautiful balance, so that he never seems more humane than when the full extent of his demons is revealed.

“Fences” has passages of fierce and moving power, but on screen the play comes off as episodic and more than a bit unwieldy. As other characters show up, each sheds a ray of light on the real nature of Troy. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his grown son from a previous relationship, is an easygoing musician who wants more out of life than working a job of grungy drudgery like his father’s, and when he asks Troy for $10, Troy refuses him. His parsimoniousness is a point of pride, and to some degree a valid one, but it’s also rigid and didactic. Then there’s Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who returned from World War II with a metal plate in his head and without all his marbles. Troy took Gabe’s $3,000 disability payout and purchased the house with it, and the energy he pours into justifying that action is a clear sign of how much guilt there is eating away at him. Williamson does a lyrical piece of acting as Gabe, whose mind is half-gone but whose radar picks up on things he isn’t aware of.

The acting is all superb. At the moment Troy’s selfishness is fully revealed, Viola Davis delivers a monologue of tearful, scalding, nose-running agony that shows you one woman’s entire reality breaking down. For a few shattering moments, when she talks about her family of half-brothers and half-sisters, it drags the fallout from America’s racist past right into the glaring light of the present. Yet a drama like this one should build in power, and after a while it begins to dissipate. There’s a resonance to Washington’s performance as a man who has tried to stand up to a daily hurricane of injustice, only to end up betraying his family and himself. But the film has a top-heaviness as well: the gravity of “importance” that can weigh down an awards-season contender. As you watch “Fences,” there’s never a doubt that these lives matter, and that’s a good and noble thing, but you’re also aware (maybe too aware) of how much the movie itself wants to matter.

Film Review: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in 'Fences'

Reviewed at ArcLight Cinemas, Los Angeles, Nov. 17, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 133 MIN.

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Bron Creative, Macro Media, Scott Rudin Prods., Paramount Pictures production. Producers: Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington. Executive producers: Molly Allen, Eli Bush, Jason Cloth, Aaron L. Gilbert, Charles King, Andrew Pollack, Kim Roth, Dale Wells.

Crew

Director: Denzel Washington. Screenplay: August Wilson. Camera (color, widescreen): Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Editor: Hughes Winborne.

With

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo, Saniyya Sidney.

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  1. “Fences” is nothing more than a tired, boring stereotypical representation of black people. it was actually incredibly annoying to watch. Denzel is great in almost every role he plays but this movie falls way short of entertainment and drifts into the realm of vanity project aimed at re-telling a story that we have had pounded into us since the early 1970s. I was hoping for something more evolved than this from such a talented cast. Far from sympathetic, Denzel’s character is overplayed and one-dimensional. In fact, every character is overplayed in this film which would be more aptly titled “Everything you always thought about black people…is apparently true”.

  2. Patricia Lunt says:

    When will the film Fence be shown in Stoke on Trent

  3. Fences says:

    Saw an advanced screening of #FencesMovie tonight with the Minnie. I knew just by looking at the cast that this was going to be a new classic.
    Troy’s (played by Denzel Washington) larger than life personality will make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. The film is truly heart-warming and very appropriate for the entire family. Full of morals, lessons, and life’s hidden nuggets of gold, #FencesMovie will tug at your heart and make you appreciate your own family: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  4. Sharon O Earley says:

    What an awesome adaptation of the play Fences! A realistic and true depiction of family and love. There were peeks of my own life as a child growing up with sentiments of my own parents love and struggles while raising myself and siblings to have moral fortitude. I truly appreciated the significance of the metaphors implied from the mention of St. Peter to the trumpet sound. Such a message of hope and strength. Impeccable acting from all. Definitely, should receive Oscar for screenwriting, director and supporting actors.

  5. Michelle Mixon says:

    This movie is PHENOMINAL!!! Denzel Washington and Viola Davis deserve an Oscar. Their performances was hands down theee absolute best that I’ve seen. I was there, in the scenes feeling every emotion they expressed and felt it was breathtaking.

  6. Sandra says:

    I just seen Fences tonight. Excellent, I applaud Denzel and Viola they’re true artists,, I felt so many emotions throughout the movie. I was born in1952 and the movie took me down memory lane Overall all the actor’s were superb,,, Definitely should get an Oscar

  7. Debbie says:

    It was a miserable movie. I was very disappointed. Excellent acting, but the storyline was without. No one can deny that Viola and Denzel are good actors, but I wanted to walk out of the movie every step of the way. Within five minutes, I wanted to tell “Troy” to shut up. Painful. Disappointing. Excruciating.

    • gary ropnall says:

      I belong to a group, the reviewer and Debbie, that has seen Denzel’s ‘message’ movies – preachy, boring

      • Cassandra says:

        Debbie, I agree! Terrible story line….changed out of nowhere and took me by surprise. Quickly it became a fast moving locomotive veering off the right track. The best acting I’ve seen though. However, the movie exaggerates and highlights the union of the wounded soul of many black men, and, the broken spirit of many black women, of which, was more prevalent throughout that era and the previous. The result is broken children struggling to know what true love is.

  8. ray says:

    I went to see it last night.. I am white and saw my own father In Troy.. it was very emotional.. EXCELLENT PERFORMANCES by all.. I give it FOUR OSCARS!

  9. Asadi says:

    i think this movie is one of the best drama film about black peoples

  10. fm says:

    “Episodic,” Mr. Gleiberman, has become a facile diss word. Why? Episodes in great TV (that’s what they call them). Episodic in great literature, too. Fences is a fine film with universal appeal for all families – black, white. latino, etc. But La La Land (good!) is your #1 choice for 2016!? It would be a lovely, light meringue to the much more substantial main course and profound heft of Fences (much needed in our troubled times).

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