It’s a shame that so many serious American films today have poor primary interests. So many authors seem to begin writing new screenplays because they have strict (and often narrow-minded) perspectives on a serious subject matter and then construct characters as mere pawns only to prove their opinions on that particular subject matter. Unfortunately, that’s often a recipe for unilaterally static characters and a dull movie.
Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences is a fantastic achievement; the characters here are priority number one, with a screenplay (started by Wilson and finished by Tony Kushner after Wilson’s death) never imposing its themes onto the audience. Rather, drama and nuance are allowed to grow organically and delicately out its fantastic cast of complex characters. Wilson says so much, but screams nothing. It deserves attention.
Denzel Washington (also directing) gives one of his best performances as Troy Maxson, a troubled man living in 1950’s Pittsburg who unfairly projects his frustrations and insecurities onto his family. Troy distrusts nearly all people and feels threatened by anyone else finding their own way in the world. His teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) fears him as Troy crushes his football dreams (Troy played baseball in the Negro Leagues). And he can’t accept his older son Lyons’ (Russell Hornsby) success as a musician. This is a sort of plotless movie and instead examines the code Troy lives by. The film’s narrative thread is reliant on revealing Troy’s background, how it formed his personal code, and how that code devastates the people around him. There’s a reason why it is called “character study” and I learned much about Troy.
He values his money and possessions because they can – and will – be taken away; as a black man raised in a world where white men could take anything away from you, this is inevitable. But he lets that fear penetrate to an unreasonable length in day-to-day life. The family living room has three pieces of furniture: one is a Troy’s couch, the man of the house’s couch, the others two chairs for everybody else and have plastic covering them. He’s protecting the chairs from outsiders. But with all his fears that his things will be taken from him, he also steals from others. He steals their dreams and peace of mind. He also took something else and this may be another reason why he’s so insecure, but I dare not spoil it.
In addition to the supporting players listed above, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Mykelti Williamson give excellent supporting performances as Troy’s friend Jim and Troy’s mentally-impaired brother Gabriel, respectively. And then we have Viola Davis playing his second wife, Rose. Her performance is one of the most honest portrayals of a poor, frustrated American housewife I’ve ever seen. Her personal wants, desires and complicated subordinate relationship to her husband are spot-on. Davis performs her duties so apathetically, yet thoroughly and convincingly authentic, she deserves award consideration.
From what I’ve come to understand, this is extremely faithful to August Wilson’s play. Which makes it all the more special as a motion picture. Hollywood often underestimates the intelligence of audiences and this material could have easily been tarnished by comprising the play’s complexities and simplifying them for the “lowest common denominator.” The utmost respect for Wilson’s work comes across from the cast and crew.
One of the things I loved most about Fences is how faithfully post-depression Pittsburg is recreated here. The opening scene features wisely composed long shots of the city as Troy and Jim go through a normal work day. Washington allows the audience to appreciate a different time in history right from the opening frame. Washington and cinematographer Hughes Winborne allow the scenery to actually be seen because very little shallow focus. The environment is a living character. And another great little detail, it’s quiet, like it was before the noisy world of today.
All of the characters’ morals and beliefs are rooted in a different historical context, not a contemporary one. This is the key that allows audiences to accept what is said by the characters, hearing their particular language spoken in their time, as much of what is said might be so disagreeable to a politically correct America.
Additionally, the art direction and costume design should be acknowledged as everything onscreen is period correct, whether it’s the sets, props, or clothes. And it’s not just that fit the period, but they fit the characters. For example, on his day off Troy wears a blue button-down, one size too big, that only a man of his age and personality living in the era could ever wear. Details like this enhance Washington’s performance.
While it may have been conceived for the stage, Fences is a great American movie that will stand the test of time. So many films today, particularly those made by African-Americans, are held to unfair expectations to represent a demographic in a very specific sort of way in an effort to make a statement on contemporary issues. Thankfully, Fences rises above such concerns; it’s only concern is telling a great story and staying true to the humanity of its characters. Perhaps that’s why August Wilson’s play remains popular for over thirty years, and now, thanks to Denzel Washington’s magnificent adaptation, it can reach more audiences than ever before.