Keeping fences up for trapped people
Now this is more of my speed, a true Oscar contender that, for once, actually moved me in ways I did not expect. Coming in as an adaptation from a stage play, which was adapted by the same writer as said play, and directed by my main guy, Denzel Washington, we get a very focused drama that discusses issues of race, family, loyalty, obligation, duty, and wanting something more out of life. The thing that surprised me was, well, the film actually succeeded in talking about these concepts competently.
We have Denzel directing himself as Troy Maxson, a waste collector working out of Pittsburgh to provide for his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). The movie starts off with Rose wanting Troy to build a fence between the neighbor’s house and their home, but the movie isn’t really concerned with a solid story. Instead, it wants you to get into the life of Troy, who seems like a strict family man who’s nonetheless charming in his own drunken way but is really harboring deep seated resentment and constant worry in his life. His home was only purchased thanks to becoming the beneficiary of his brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) getting a metal plate placed in his head causing massive brain damage and so Troy has to manage his brother’s finances. Further, Troy deals with a grave family matter that can truly test any family bond, and that’s as far as I’ll go without dipping into spoilers.
Now, I’ve been known to harp on the coherency of a story in many of my reviews, but I rag on several films that cock their plot up because it’s one of the most basic facets of making a movie. But I do not condone adhering to a specific structure like the typical three act method, I do appreciate it when a film uses a different kind of narrative order to tell it’s story. I bring this up because Fences strongly reminds me of a stage play that’s more concerned with giving you strong moments in a slice of life manner rather than giving you a beginning, middle and end. This is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness that will likely be a point of contention for several audience members, because several scenes do drag on due to issues with pacing and a lack of focus as to where the film is going. I’m addressing this critique first because I want to explain just how goddamn amazing the performances are in this film that I almost ignored this problem with the movie.
Denzel Washington is fucking amazing here. He’s introduced as a charismatic guy that you can easily enjoy a drink with and you can also see why his best friend and wife enjoy his company. But you also quickly see how his mood changes significantly when it comes to his sons. To his oldest child, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy always remains stingy when it comes to money and belittled the grown man for pursuing music as a career as opposed to a trade job. To his 17-year-old son, Cory, Troy is even harder in raising as the boy is getting approached for a football scholarship and his father wants him to seek a trade occupation. But with Cory, he opts for an intimidating parenting style where he berates the boy and puts down any wild aspirations he may have.
What I also appreciated is that Washington modified his own performance of this character when he portrayed him on Broadway in 2010, to something far scarier and more in common with James Earl Jones’ take on the character (here’s a link to the exact same speech done by Jones this time…also that Vader voice came out like a motherfucker). It’s an effective turn that I liked because it made Troy a more approachable character at first, but one you quickly have second thoughts about when this scene goes up. Keep in mind, the scene I’m referring to is fairly early on in the film, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers.
Now, a central point in this piece is that Troy rather his son did that than be subjected to the racist sports system that would likely reject Cory as Troy felt he was passed over for his baseball talent…or at least that’s what he claims. See, for as prideful as Troy is, he has an uncanny knack for exaggerating the truth. Troy begins the film in boasting he stared death down in a wrestling match, then he claims the Devil wanted to make a Faustian deal, and keeps the crowing on for as long as possible. This also extends to his passion for baseball, for which he makes incessant analogies to real life even in intense situations, and further brags that he was better than Jackie Robinson and many a player. However, his wife doesn’t put up with Troy’s bullshit and points out that the reason he never made it past the Negro Baseball League was because of age rather than the race barrier.
Incidentally, we now come to the other portion of the movie that I absolutely adore and that’s Viola Davis. And if Denzel’s performance was amazing, Davis gives something that strongly rivals her director’s work. Her exasperated patience with Troy and all his faults (and by God, they are many) is both relatable and believable. Add to the fact she’s the only character in the film who consistently calls out Troy without a hint of fear and Denzel’s character knows damn well why. There’s also a scene where she breaks down in and gives the best goddamn monologue an actor or actress has delivered in all of 2016. It’s only two minutes, but she’s crying with pure snot pouring all over her face and venting every frustration she’s ever felt about her living situation that it’s so goddamn believable I felt genuine sadness for their character and hate for another. It’s a moment that makes you forget you’re watching a film and are completely engrossed by the experience.
And Davis’ moment also gets to the main thrust of the film: feeling trapped in a family situation and looking for others to blame for their predicament. Some targets of blame are appropriate, but others (usually identified by Troy) are not. But seeing the various family members turn on each other for their respective problems is both painfully realistic and can probably affect those with troubled blood relationships. This is most evident in Adepo’s performance as Cory, who shows feels more like a teenager than the stage production previews of Fences I’ve seen. The escalation of conflict between him and his father is one of the movie’s central draws and it keeps you invested; even though, upon reflection, the actual story progression felt pretty clunky.
But like I said, the performances and the dialogue are so good in here that I quickly forgot about my concerns with the screenplay. The rest of the cast are all doing fantastic jobs particularly from Hornsby and Stephen McKinley Henderson who plays Troy’s best friend, Bono. But the other standout performance was from Williamson as Troy’s older brother, Gabe, who walks around with a trumpet and a basket of vegetables and is very clearly mentally incapacitated. Revealed early on to have suffered a massive brain injury that lead to a metal plate in his head, Gabe presence is absolutely heartbreaking. But Gabe’s appearances also reveals more dimensions to Troy in that he rarely gets frustrated with his brother and shows far more patience than he does towards the other members of his family. It paints Troy less of an asshole and more of a complicated human being, so basically a normal fucking person and cpnsequently one that you need to constantly reevaluate before you make an opinion of.
See, this film demonstrates why I’ve had such a problem with dramas that deify their main protagonist as opposed to painting them as shades of grey. Drama just isn’t interesting when your main character is devoid of any faults that they might as well be Jesus H. Christ. Even inherently good characters like Steve Rogers and Harry Potter have faults, so if bunch of children’s books and superheroes can get that shit right, expecting more out of Oscar contenders should not be a high bar. But the writer of this movie (and the play its based off of), August Wilson, understood that to make a character an interesting, you have to present them with making choices that are both believable and makes sense given their history. It’s with his dialogue and characterizations does Wilson’s script sing.
Which is good, because I simply can’t ignore the big pacing issues this movie suffers from. Scene transitions are as clunky as a scene change in a play, and some scenes do drag on between the excellent heavy moments. While Denzel is certainly a competent director, he’s far better at managing his cast to what he needs them to do as opposed to cutting anything in the script that doesn’t work or film making flourishes that communicate a sense of style. I’ll chalk this up to Washington having too much reverence for Wilson, who passed away back in 2005 and specifically demanded for an African-American director for his film adaptation.
While they are complaints, they’re pretty much nitpicks in the face of such quality performances and writing. I’ve said multiple times in the past that certain elements can either save a film or bring it down, and Fences is no different here. Therefore, I’m giving this a very high…