Fences was directed by and stars Denzel Washington as well as Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russel Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Jovan Adepo. This movie came out in December 2016 and I’m reviewing this now as part of my Oscar movie series for 2017.
First let’s talk story and then we’ll get into the more technical side. Fences is adapted from a Pulitzer prize winning Broadway play by August Wilson and is set in the mid 1950s, before civil rights was much of a reality. This was a time when as a black trash collector in Pittsburgh, you could be fired just for asking why there are no black men driving trash collection trucks. We are introduced in the first scene to Troy Maxon, as played by Denzel Washington, an illiterate but far from stupid trash collector who did ask that question and when he’s in the presence of his friend Bono, as played by Stephen Henderson, he’s not at all shy about expressing how he really feels about the oppressive system they are trapped in.
Quickly the movie proceeds to its primary stage where most of the action happens: the back yard of Maxon’s small brick home. He and his wife Rose, as played by Viola Davis, and Bono sit and talk there for hours after work and on the weekends and the conversation rambles from good natured banter to dark rememberances of times past depending on how much alchol Maxon has imbibed and whether or not Rose, Bono or one of his two sons have set him off on a rant. As the movie progresses, and we learn more and more about what has made Troy Maxon who and what he is, we alternate between sympathy, pity, anger and outrage at both him and at the life which has created him. We are saddened by the tragic circumstances of his upbringing, infuriated by the caustic way he demands and gets respect for his authority, shocked by some of the choices he has made in his life both past and present, but ultimately, it’s up to each individual audience member as to how they are going to feel and what they are going to think about Troy Maxon and his family when the screen goes black. He is a multi-layered, fully realized man of his times and there’s no box to put him in, no label to slap on his forehead and explain him away.
The characters that are situated around Troy – his wife, his two sons, his best friend – serve as foils and reflections. They are people that he alternately loves and hates, respects and despises and through their interactions we learn more about Troy. As with all great cinema, though, as the movie progresses we find ourselves as audience members also learning about ourselves. The problems that this movie presents and the way that they are resolved are not simple and they don’t have easy or obvious answers. This is a movie about the choices we make, the walls and bridges we build around ourselves and the consequences we have to deal with as a result. When it comes to causes and effects, it’s sometimes very very hard to see what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad.
Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that there’s a quite well put together end to this movie that doesn’t give you a sweet Hollywood resolution where every problem is settled and every character faces the future with happy determination, secure in the knowledge that they are fighting the good fight. Sorry, but the audience doesn’t get off that easy with this one.
Now in terms of the technical side, it’s obvious very early in the first act that the source material for this movie is a stage play, but that’s not a bad thing. Like Death of a Salesman, Inherit the Wind or even A Few Good Men, we are treated to an actor’s movie with long dialogues that use words rather than scenery or stunts to establish character, history and direction. And the way words are used in Fences is about as good as you’re ever going to see. Conversations look like conversations, not just actors waiting for each other to finish so they can deliver their next line. This is true for every single actor on set, not just Denzel or Viola. We already know that it’s all but impossible for Denzel Washington to do bad acting, but rarely do we see him get to go all the way like he does here. But as a director, he draws out the best in every one of his actors and if there is any mark of a good director, that more than anything is it. These are not just Oscar gold performances – they are titanium strong.
When adapting a stage play to the screen, there are lots of choices a director and cinematographer can make in framing shots, deciding what set to put the characters in from one scene to the next and how much to move off-stage or into the larger set pieces which movies afford you the opportunity to use. In this case, Washington kept it simple, sometimes going into different rooms in Maxon’s small home and only very rarely going beyond the street outside. This simplicity works because it keeps the audience’s attention where it belongs: on the interaction of the characters.
The metaphor on which the film is named, the fences that we build to either keep people out or keep them in, is not overplayed and you don’t feel at any time that you’re being beaten over the head with some Big Important Message. In fact, I would have a hard time coming up with a single statement to describe what this movie is about because it operates at so many levels and across so many boundaries. For me, it is the thoughtfulness that goes in to dialogue so real you feel you’ve met these people before that brings themes and messages to life. I don’t think most of us need to have the moral of the story fed to us in skywriting to understand what is going on, a lesson I wish more Hollywood dramas would learn these days.
There is no question why this movie is an Oscar contender for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. One wonders why Viola Davis is not up for Best Actress because she was definitely doing more than playing a supporting role here, but apparently she chose to campaign for Best Supporting Actress because of the intense competition at the Best Actress level this year. It also makes sense to me why Denzel Washington is not up for Best Director because while he has done an amazing job with the acting performances here, his direction otherwise does not stand out and in fact there were some choices he made in the first act which I think could have made the beginning a bit more powerful.
That all being said, if you have not seen Fences then you simply need to as soon as possible. On the strength of the story and performances alone, this movie more than earns a rating of Sheer Awesome. We’ll see how this compares with the rest of the Oscar contenders as I continue to roll out my reviews of all these Oscar-nominated movies over the next couple of weeks, followed by my picks for who should win what. Stay tuned and as always, please like and share this review around the interwebs. This is Chris Shelton with the Critical Picture and I’ll see you next time.