Starring-Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
Reviewed June 11, 2017
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both give dynamic performances in Fences, a film directed by Washington himself, and based on a stage play, written by August Wilson. The film reunites several actors from the stage version and, while compelling, Fences does not translate as well onto the screen as hoped. Throughout the film, I kept surmising how much better Fences would be on the live stage. Still, a tremendous acting tour de force transpires, which is well worth the price of admission.
Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) is a struggling fifty-three year old black man, working as a trash collector alongside his best friend, Jim Bono. Married to Rose (Davis), they share a teenage son, Cory, an aspiring high school football player. In the mix are Troy’s younger brother, a mentally impaired World War II veteran, and Troy’s older son, Lyons, a fledging musician. Everyone lives in a close-knit community and there is a sense of comradery, though the principal characters are frequently at odds with each other as dramatic situations slowly arise.
Troy is a very angry man, frequently going on rants about his time playing in the Negro baseball league and complaining about the unfairness of the world, specifically the racial injustice of the time. The friction between Troy and Cory is thick as Cory wants to dedicate his life to football, while Troy feels his son will ultimately be disappointed. When Troy drops a startling bomb on Rose, their lives are forever changed as they work to mend the damage inflicted between them.
Fences is at its core a family drama and the story offers tons of conflict. Almost all of the action takes place in the Maxson family home- a two story brick house- and scenes frequently play out in the backyard. In this way, the film stays very true to its roots as a stage production, which is good and bad. The film feels like a play, so therefore I found myself fantasizing about how good the production would be on the stage rather than on the screen, especially since some of the actors (namely Washington and Davis) starred in that version. What a blessing and a curse.
The film feels a bit too limiting at times and contains a glossy “Hollywood look” to it. This is all well and good, but the stage version would undoubtedly be more bare bones, giving the production more of a raw feel- especially important in several key dramatic scenes between Troy and Rose.
Despite other opinions, I did not find Troy to be a likable character at all. Certainly, Washington infuses power and good acting grit into the character, but I found few redeeming qualities. To say nothing of the situation with Rose, he does not treat son Cory with much respect. I found Troy’s repeated verbal rampages and stories irritating after awhile, and began to wonder, “why should we root for this man?”
Viola Davis deserved the Best Supporting Actress award she received for her turn as Rose. Dutiful, loving, and woefully under appreciated, her character rises well above a traditional housewife, as during one pivotal scene, she explodes with rage. Davis, a fantastic “crier”, saves her best tears for this part, as it is a weepy portrayal. But more than that, she exudes a strong woman, in a time when black women had it particularly tough.
I would have preferred an edgier film than the final result of Fences brings to the big screen, but the wonderful performances more than compensated for what the film otherwise lacks in darkness. At times too safe and slightly watered down, the stage version may be the one to see.