Dir: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Stephen McKinley Henderson
4.00 out of 5.00
MONTE YAZZIE ~ THE FOOTHILLS FOCUS ~1/4/17
I know someone who I would consider a great talker. They can tell stories with such flare and emotion that it feels like you are in that exact moment. They can inspire a group of people with meaningful and honest messages of encouragement. Supply this person with a few cocktails and they can bring the house to its knees in laughter with yarns that connect into amusing, hilarious insights of everyday life. It’s an undeniable talent to command a room of people with such natural authority.
American playwright August Wilson, an exceptionally talented author, wrote a character that you could describe as one of these “great conversationalists” in a play called “Fences”. The character, Troy Maxson, is a charismatic man with strong ideas and perceptions about the world around him and the world that has and will shape his future. Troy is a difficult character to like, but he is undeniably riveting to listen to.
Denzel Washington, reprising the role he established in the stage adaptation a few years ago, plays Troy Maxson. However, Washington is doing more than just acting; he also directed this film. Also reprising her role from the play is Viola Davis, playing a beautiful and thoughtful woman, mother, wife who loves her family and makes Troy a better man than he actually is. “Fences” is a film that operates within set boundaries, much like its title insinuates, and it places the viewer in the middle of a family dynamic that lumbers and crumbles under the stress of past woes, selfish decisions, and the pursuit for the happiness that motivates the American dream.
We are introduced to Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), waxing and jabbing with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about their job as sanitation workers, their lives as husbands and fathers, and the past that has solidified their relationship with such a fierce bond that underneath every mean-spirited joke and personal stab you can feel the kind of love that comes with shared experiences both good and bad. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) is the glue that holds her family together, a woman who adores her husband amidst the knowledge that everything in their relationship, and with their family, is not the best that it could be.
“Fences” was adapted from a play, but Washington doesn’t allow the constraints within that structure to keep him from expanding the limits. By no means does the film have flashy photography or offer technical flare; instead Washington establishes a parameter: the inside of the house, the confines of the backyard, the sidewalks and road of the street Troy walks home on. Within these boundaries, Washington displays the American dream for a family that experienced the social injustices that tarnished their pursuit of that dream. Troy is still weary and angry from these experiences. He was a baseball player that peaked before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and a sanitation worker who believes that being a driver is meant for people of a different color than him. While these experiences are never shown, Troy discusses them with such intricacy and passion that you can see these scenes formulate from his words. Still, this harsh mentality about the world saturates every decision he makes with his family. His youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who plays football and is vying for scholarship to play in college, is challenged on numerous occasions in a similar fashion as when Troy discusses how bad a baseball player Jackie Robinson was. It starts as part tough love but moves into something that feels like bullying; Troy’s other son Lyon (Russell Hornsby), who is a struggling musician, is also belittled for wanting to borrow money and then later in the film denied the opportunity to pay his father back because of Troy’s pride. It’s within these moments with family where we begin to see the charismatic talker, who boasts about fighting the devil and hitting homeruns, show his true colors. In a heartbreaking scene and performance from Viola Davis, Rose confronts her husband who has just boasted about another woman, complained about his home life, and offered regrets about why the world has passed him by. Through a flow of tears, she asks him the question, “What about my life, what about my dreams?” and Troy has no response.
“Fences” is never an easy film – it asks complicated questions and insists that you try and see the world throw the eyes of the characters. This sometimes offers valuable insight, like when Troy discusses why he “likes” his son, and at other times confuses, like when Rose complaisantly accepts an unimaginable responsibility because of Troy’s selfishness. Still, great characters should make these aspects of life difficult to understand, it’s easy to say that we would respond differently but it’s never that easy in the moment. That’s the accomplishment that Washington achieves in “Fences”, making the murky and thorny choices these characters make resonate so emotionally long after the film ends.