Gives us great insight to the push and pull of familial bonds.
In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won Tony Awards for their performances in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Fences. Now, Wilson’s stirring tale of a black family in ‘50s Pittsburgh arrives on the big screen with Washington himself behind the camera. Unlike the acclaimed actor’s last two directorial efforts, Fences is far more satisfying than the usual movie star excursions into filmmaking. As a movie, it’s a solid, functional stage adaptation. But as a framework for some of the best screen acting of the year, it’s unparalleled, housing what is easily the best performance of Washington’s career.
Fences centers on Troy Maxon (Washington), a former Negro League baseball player who now supports his family as a garbage collector. As the film starts, Troy worries that he might get fired for filing a union complaint about white men being the only ones allowed to drive the truck, while the black men are stuck in the back lifting the cans. This trepidation manifests in interactions with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), his wife Rose (Davis) and his eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby). There’s also his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was injured in WWII and suffers delusions and mental strain as a result, and his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose obsession with football Troy despises. The underlying tension begins about Troy’s uncertain employment, but as the film progresses, it’s clear that it’s not just the job that’s eating away at Troy and those closest to him.
Most scenes begin as casual conversations with any number of the core cast exchanging passive dialogue, catching up over a drink or addressing something seemingly mundane. But laidback banter gives way to highly charged subtext that bubbles to the surface. Reveals about Troy’s troubled history are doled out at a fascinating pace. He’s a magnetic, towering presence in the narrative, but bite-sized revelations function like miniature counterarguments to his unimpeachable charisma. It’s the kind of rich characterization that seems commonplace on stage but rare in mainstream film.
Time was, many Hollywood pictures were just plays with a camera pointed at them. Fences doesn’t suffer from lazy stylistic tics. Washington smartly opens up the play by varying his settings, as the scenes move from the backyard of the Maxon home to interior rooms and selected exterior locales. It’s a simple creative change that goes a long way to making the family home feel more lived in. From a visual standpoint, the film’s two and a half hour run time works against it, as there’s a shot clock in the watchful viewer’s mind counting down as Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen run out of dynamic ways to frame two or three people yelling at one another. Staging in depth and allowing for longer takes lets the proceedings breathe, but well-placed camera movements at crucial moments propel otherwise static sequences.
Fences doesn’t need to reinvent the cinematic wheel to succeed as a drama. Wilson’s words are so densely layered and structurally nuanced that the film only needs elite performers to bring the characters and their thoughts to life. In that regard, the film is an embarrassment of riches. This may well be the finest onscreen ensemble of the year, delivering work so powerful it begins to feel effortless. Prestige pictures tend to showcase a brand of acting more characterized by effort and a desire for accolades, but the performances in Fences work so well because they make challenging material feel like second nature. Seeing the film with a mixed race audience is an interesting experience, because the film is so heavy thematically, that many non-black viewers have difficulty acclimating to just how funny Washington, Davis and Williamson are between the film’s tougher moments. Every cast member commands the screen so totally that every other line makes you feel something different, no matter how exposition-packed or throwaway.
Washington is of course at the center of that. This more theatrical approach to filmmaking allows for the actor to move slightly outside of his movie star wheelhouse. All of the Denzelian mannerisms you’ve come to know and love over the last 30-odd years are still very much on display, but this is the most spirited and varied he has ever been. In Troy Maxon, Washington is able to find more complexity and more layers than in any other role he’s played. He fills up the auditorium with his laugh, with his bellowing and with his quiet frustration. For years, Washington has been able to deliver reliably great work without having to break out of his accepted onscreen persona. Even his turn in Training Day is just a showy typecasting riposte in comparison to the totality of human imperfection he’s captured here.
As much as this is Denzel’s picture, Viola Davis is every inch his equal, if not his better. She’s been killing it for years, so much that every new performance feels like a new breakout. Fences has a great deal to say about the effects of systemic oppression on the black American family and the weight of responsibility on male providers in the house. But in the lone female role in the show, Davis’ Rose represents something more powerful, recognizing and exalting that for every dramatic moment of a black man struggling with his place in the world, there’s a black woman right next to him shouldering everything his solipsism casts by the wayside.
The bulk of the film seems more concerned with the lineage of fathers and sons, of the cycle of violence and abandonment that has plagued the line of Maxon men. But Rose makes a decision late in the film that breaks that cycle. She is faced with a difficult choice regarding a horrible mistake Troy has made and she chooses the make the best of it, as black women have had to for as long as we can remember. It’s a powerful statement about legacy, parental love and sacrifice. Above all else, Fences gives us great insight to the push and pull of familial bonds. Thanks to exemplary work by some incredible performers, that exploration of the home feels vital and vivid, never mundane.