“Fences” Movie Review


     I’m convinced those films which truly resonate with people often trigger an emotional response based on events that have occurred or are occurring in their lives.  The five most universally acclaimed films this year all have the sort of storylines which create these feelings, as each tells a story involving very relatable scenarios that all of us has lived at one time or another.  And while “La La Land” explores the hardships of falling in love, “Manchester by the Sea” wallows in tragedy and loss, “Hell or High Water” glimpses a world weary police veteran on his last case, and “Moonlight” shows us the coming of age story of a young man who questions his sexuality, Denzel Washington’s “Fences” delves into the topic of family and the complexities that arise over time.  For Washington, who both stars and directs, the film stands as a master’s work in bringing to the screen the August Wilson play in a way that exhibits such awe inspiring detail in each of the story’s characters.

     In many ways, “Fences” plays on screen much like 2013’s “August: Osage County” (also an adaptation of a Broadway play), in that the narrative structure contains scenes you can picture on stage, each with a beginning and a clear ending, that don’t necessarily blend directly into the next scene.  It’s as if we get a series of sketches, rather than something which plays like a feature film.  That isn’t to say the way “Fences” is edited proves distracting, exactly the opposite rather.  Washington, from the opening scene, demonstrates the willingness to allow the audience a seat right next to the characters, allowing us to learn even the smallest of details about each of their personalities.  Never before have I observed such a rich and satisfying film taking place almost entirely within the setting of the lead character’s back yard.

     “Fences” tells the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a fifty something father working as a garbage man in the 1950s, who despite a checkered and regretful past, does his best to get by and support his family.  Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis), stays home and raises their high school aged son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), as they try to make ends meet in a world engulfed in racism and poverty.  The topic of racism and how events related to it have effected Troy’s life typically finds itself front and center in the conversations Troy has with his friend and partner at work, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), as well as his 34 year old son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who he fathered as a teen long before he met Rose.  Troy is said to have been one of the most talented baseball players in the Negro Leagues prior to the introduction of black players into Major League Baseball.  Much of what we hear early on are stories of home runs hit not into the stands, but completely out of the park, as legions of fans wait after the game just to get an up close glimpse of Troy who may have been viewed at the time as an inspirational and larger than life hero.  But because of his age, he never gets a Major League opportunity and looks back at his playing career as a waste of talent and a series of dreams that never came true.

     This is where a significant conflict arises between Troy and his son Cory, whom we are told is excelling at high school football and is being recruited to play on scholarship at the college level.  Troy preaches to his son about the importance of the dollar, as well as the need to have a trade and the ability to work for a living.  In Troy’s eyes, playing sports is not the path to successfully supporting a family and he insists Cory continue to work daily at the local supermarket, rather than attend football practice, an opinion not shared by Rose.  In one notable conversation, Cory asks his father if he would buy the family a television, indicating the cost of a such a purchase would be $200 and it would mean the two of them could watch the World Series in their own living room.  Troy quickly puts an end to the idea, telling his son the more immediate need is the repair of their home’s leaking roof, which will cost him $264.  The ensuing debate is an interesting one since Cory says he would prioritize, much to his father’s dismay, the buying of the television over fixing the roof.  

     As we get to know each of the characters, the story introduces a number of revelations from the past, as well as a series of obstacles the family must overcome in order to continue to move forward.  Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), roams the streets around their home suffering from brain injuries he incurred while serving during World War 2, and the scenes in which he appears are a stark reminder of the often ignored sacrifices our servicemen make each day while the rest of us live under the blanket of freedom they are providing.  As we continue to listen carefully to the banter provided by Troy through conversation with Rose, Cory, Jim, and Lyons, we come to realize something isn’t right with him.  Can Troy continue to work as a garbage man making a minimal income day in and day out and still maintain a sense of pride while knowing his talents as a baseball player were never realized?  Is he steering Cory in the right direction by holding him back from the opportunities he has as a star high school football player?  Will the endless conflict and ghosts of the past continue to effect his relationship with Rose?  

     These are the questions the story answers in ways that are both touching and enormously powerful.  From a performance standpoint, this may very well be Washington’s best work, and that’s considering Viola Davis calmly steals every scene she is in, exhibiting the kind of heartfelt emotion few actresses are even capable of.  Both are Oscar worthy.  In adapting his own play for the screen, August Wilson displays a clear understanding of how certain scenes need to have some sort of connective tissue not necessary for the stage, but crucial for a film to flow properly.  The dialogue spoken by each character is both thought provoking and relevant, as the themes explored remain the same in today’s version of the American family.  GRADE: A