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  • Fences | Review

    By | December 25, 2016


    Director: Denzel Washington

    Writer: August Wilson

    Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson

    Denzel Washington makes his way back into the director’s chair with Fences, an adaptation of the 1983 August Wilson play of the same name, his first directorial turn since 2007’s The Great Debaters. Remarkably, this is the first time one of Wilson’s plays has been adapted to the big screen. Starring Washington and Viola Davis, the film narrates a rich and challenging morally complex tale of a man who has been wounded and is doing his best to survive but who seems unable to keep from wounding those around him in the same ways.

    The beauty of adapting a stage-tested play is that you know the dialogue is going to be sharpened to a fine edge. And when you’re using the same actors that were in the stage play, as is the case with Washington and Davis, who both earned Tony awards for the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences, you know that they know the material and characters inside and out. But the risk you take is that this piece of work, which was written with the stage in mind, will not translate to the screen, that it will leave the viewer feeling like he’s watching a recorded production of a play. There’s no doubt that Fences struggles to keep it’s balance while walking that tightrope, and at times it almost falls, but it is still a stirring film and a worthwhile artistic accomplishment.

    Troy Maxson (Washington) is a man on the wrong side of of mid-life, at 53 his best days behind him. He once had dreams of playing major league baseball, and to listen to him tell it he also had the talent but was too old by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to follow him out of the Negro Leagues. Now he’s many years into a career as a Pittsburgh garbage collector,  and the racism and dashed dreams that he has had to deal with have left him jaded. Still Washington always plays it with an endearing charm, making it clear why his wife Rose (Davis) has stayed beside him through the years, despite his drinking and anger issues and negativity and affairs.

    Troy is also harsh with his two sons, belittling his older son Lyons’ (Russell Hornsby) efforts to make it as a musician and refusing to let his teen son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), be recruited to play college football. As Cory tries to fight back against his father’s attempts to crush his dreams and begins to establish himself as a man by testing his father’s authority, Troy unloads on him in an uncomfortable scene that is dripping with danger and near-violence. It’s clear that Troy has convinced himself that he’s only doing his best to protect his young son from also being broken by the world but there is also a sense that he’s trying to make sure that his son isn’t allowed to achieve the same dream that was robbed from him.

    Dialogue heavy, film the performs the admirable task of delving deep into a complex character who is charming, damaged, proud, flawed, loving, strong, mean and so much more. While it also shines a light on the black experience in 1950’s America, an admirable accomplishment, it also does much more. It shines a light on the human experience in all its complexity and mystery. Troy Maxson is a character who one minute you want to spend time with and the next minute you want to never see again. He’s neither good nor bad, he’s simply human and Wilson and Washington do adroitly peel back the skin, one layer at a time, to help show some of the things that make him the man he is. It’s the kind of masterfully told story that encourages its viewers to judge less and listen and love more.

    While Denzel’s performance is nearly flawless, Viola Davis still threatens to steal the show with her powerful turn as a strong woman who loves her husband, even through his faults and flaws. At least up until he goes too far. Their final climactic confrontation is hard to watch, leaving one feeling as though they’re intruding on a couple’s most intimate and personal moment of destruction as Rose shows that as tough and cold as Troy might be, she’s woman enough to give just as good as she takes.

    Rating: 8/10

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