Legendary actor Denzel Washington not only stars in but produces and directs the screen adaptation of his long-gestated passion project, Fences, which is based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by August Wilson (who finished the screenplay before his passing in 2005) and it is a gorgeous, albeit at times frustrating, film.
First things first, the acting in this is phenomenal to say the least. Mr Washington's portrayal of the film's lead, Troy Maxson — a middle aged, African American man who works as garbage collector and is a husband and father — pours over with strikingly realistic complexity. Troy is a former star player in the professional baseball "Negro leagues", one of many sporting leagues meant for African Americans before they were allowed to play in the major leagues (where only whites were allowed to participate), who never achieved any success beyond that point and attributes his misfortune to racism. In his rollicking diatribes, he laments that his prowess didn't even leave him with "a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of". However, Maxson is much less bitter than he is cynical, which he would likely view as hard-learned pragmatism. On top of that his father was a hard man who raised him and his children harshly, which lead to Troy leaving home at fourteen, stealing from people to get by, siring his first child a few years later and ending up in prison for fifteen years soon afterwards, prior to his time as a star baseball player. We learn as the movie progresses that this man, who oscillates wildly and unpredictably between infectious joy and toxic, yet surprisingly philosophical, masculinity, is in fact weighed upon by tremendous guilt about the life he's lead and continues to lead, and a crippling fear of death, of being no different from his father and of his sons being no different from him. Troy offsets this deep-seated and contemplative melancholy that festers within him like an untended wound with bombastic stories about his life, extravagant expressions of affection of his wife and a large appetite for gin. Denzel Washington portrays him with the electrifying yet hypnotic charisma, complexity and thoughtfulness with which he portrayed Malcolm X some twenty-five years prior. It is also a surprisingly, for me anywas, physical performance, infusing the distinctive Denzel Washington strut with the look and feel of a man with aged, aching bones, giving a truly unique feeling to this character.
While Mr. Washington's performance is an exuberant tsunami of emotions and monologues, that of the oft impeccable Viola Davis, who plays Troy's wife Rose, is a quiet magma that escalates slowly but consistently to a volcanic pitch by the end of the second act. Her deservedly Academy Award-winning performance provides the foil to Troy's dynamism as she plays the dutiful, loving, easy-to-laugh wife with understated charisma and confidence to great aplomb. Rose is a woman whose life, as we often now think of 50s housewives, is completely enveloped in her husband's, and the family tragedy that unfolds in this movie is in many ways defined by this particular fact.
The rest of the supporting cast is made up of Jovan Adepo, Troy and Rose's son, plays Cory, an intelligent and sensitive high school student who infuriates his father with his dreams of and attempts at acquiring a football scholarship which, along with his studying, hamper his ability to keep his job at a local grocery store; Russell Hornsby plays Lyons, Troy's first born son from before he was incarcerated, a struggling but talented musician who irritates his father by regularly coming around to ask to borrow money; Stephen Henderson portrays Bono, Troy's best friend, drinking buddy and the enabler of his fanciful and ebullient storytelling; and lastly, Mykelti Williamson portrays Gabe, Troy's brother, who suffered brain trauma while serving in the second World War, is now cognitively impaired and himself gives impassioned, poignant speeches about death and the afterlife often with no sense of timing or occasion.
The cast of Fences is as flawless as flawless can be when speaking about a movie. The cinematography uses wonderfully elegant sunlit spring afternoons to give the film the warmth and intimacy required for the set and setting, which is mostly in the backyard and kitchen of Troy and Rose's family home, and the acting to intermingle with each other effectively. Denzel Washington's directorial efforts are so deft they're nearly unnoticeable and August Wilson's script, with all it's intelligence and compassion, is magnificent.
The greatest issue I found with this film is that it's based on a play and you can feel that it wasn't originally intended to be cinema. It's a family drama whose character, content and overall narrative is limited is squared mostly on Troy despite the fact that there are four other characters that could've been explored here where it would've been much more difficult to accomplish on stage. There are also a number of events and characters whose effects on the story happen completely offscreen, as they happened in the play, when it might've been more advantageous to the story to portray them. The dialogue and monologues, while brilliant, also seem not to have been adapted properly for film. A myriad little things could've been done better to make this movie an instant classic rather than just a very good movie, and that was extraordinarily frustrating to witness. But Denzel Washington proves himself a gifted director and adds to his already impressive filmography, as do the rest of the cast of this quietly fierce, brilliant film.
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