Directed by: Denzel Washington
Premise: An adaptation of the play by August Wilson. Set in the late 1950s, a blue collar African American father (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Viola Davis) raise their teenage son (Jovan Adepo) while the father wrestles with the mistakes and disappointments of his own life.
What Works: There are lots of movies about young men and their relationships with their fathers from East of Eden to Field of Dreams. In quite a few cases these stories are about masculinity and the craving by young men for approval by their parents. Fences works within the familiar territory of father-son stories but it also plumbs deeper than a lot of similarly-themed movies. A lot of this is due to the source material, written by August Wilson. Fences is primarily about Troy, played by Denzel Washington, an African American father working as a waste collector in Pittsburgh. Troy is an imposing figure who domineers over his family and especially over the life of Cory, his teenage son played by Jovan Adepo. Cory has a prospect of being recruited by a college football program but his father is quick to stamp out those dreams, insisting that his son focus on his studies, hold down a job, and fulfill his household chores before even considering sports. This stems from Troy’s own background as a minor league baseball player and his failure to make it into the majors. There is much going on underneath Troy’s character and between father and son. Some of this is specifically anchored in the race of the characters and the time period of the story; Troy is an example of someone who has been made coarse by the indignities of racism and this has caused him to view the world in combative and cynical terms. But there are aspects of Troy’s character and his strained relationship with his family that transcend race and speak to the hopes, anxieties, and expectations that exist between men and their sons. The dense themes of Fences come to life through an excellent cast. Denzel Washington gives one of the best performances of his career in Fences; this is a character who could be one note but in between the bravado there are moments of humanity and frailty that show through. Jovan Adepo is also impressive as the teenage son. Adepo avoids sentimentality in his performance and yet the frustration and the yearning for fatherly approval show through. Equally notable is Viola Davis as Rose. In this male-dominated movie, Davis is able to distinguish herself and she is more than a mother or a wife. She is her own character with her own desires and disappointments and Rose’s insistence upon her own dignity punches a hole in Troy’s narcissism and in the solipsism that often characterizes all-male spaces. The warring priorities of these characters make Fences a complex portrayal of family life, one that eludes easy explanations or succinct labels.
What Doesn’t: Fences was originally a stage play and the film never quite shakes its theatrical origins. As a filmmaker, Denzel Washington does a good job making the material cinematic but the dialogue has the cadence of the theatrical stage. This is especially apparent in Washington’s performance which is full of dramatic bombast. That’s a fine way to approach the material and it suits the character but Fences sometimes adheres to the theatrical origins at the expense of the cinematic opportunities offered by this adaptation. The theatrical qualities of the movie are also apparent in Troy’s mentally disabled brother played by Mykelti Williamson. The character comes across as a caricature of a mentally disabled person and rarely feels authentic. The film also struggles in the ending. It seems as though the filmmakers aren’t quite sure where to end their story and the final scene of the picture is tonally and thematically at odds with the rest of the movie. It suggests a neat resolution where none exists.
Bottom Line: Fences is an apparently simple film that is full of complexity in its portrayal of manhood and family. The movie also showcases some terrific performances by Denzel Washington, Jovan Adepo, and Viola Davis.
Episode: #629 (January 8, 2017)