Holiday season at the movies means two things: first, beginning around Thanksgiving, the release of a spate of family-friendly films, including an animated blockbuster or two. Then comes all the Oscar bait, rushed to the screens in time to qualify for the year-end nomination deadline. If you’ve been avoiding the fluff at the cinemas lately, waiting for the meaty, serious stuff to come out, now’s your chance. It’s hard to think of a better choice to start cramming for Academy Awards night than Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
It’s also hard to talk about this film without resorting to hyperbole – the sort of phrases like “Instant classic!” that would appear in bold type in movie ads. I suppose that it’s theoretically possible to mess up the inaugural film version of a toweringly great, Pulitzer-winning drama, with a screenplay by the playwright himself and starring the same two leads who copped Tony Awards for its 2010 Broadway revival. But the heady, hearty formula of Fences has in no way been compromised by the leap from stage to screen; this powerful family drama remains riveting from start to finish of its epic two-and-a-quarter-hour running time.
Written in 1983, Fences the play was the sixth – chronologically by setting – in August Wilson’s so-called Century Cycle, set in Pittsburgh during the decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Wilson’s body of work has been justly praised for its lyrical language and its vivid, realistic rendering of the African American experience. But on another level, to say that these plays are about working-class black folks emigrating from the South to the Rust Belt is rather like saying that Shakespeare’s plays are about the English aristocracy of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Though set against a backdrop of social challenges particular to race and class, their themes, in fact, are absolutely universal. Wherever there are families, you will find families like the Maxsons.
If August Wilson is the 20th-century African American Shakespeare, Fences’ central character, Troy Maxson (Washington) is his Lear: a well-meaning father who makes bad choices regarding his children; a raging autocrat much larger than life, but ultimately subject to the same fears and self-doubts as any other mortal. Wilson even gives Troy a scene shouting defiance at a thunderstorm, dispelling any doubts about the iconic stature of this character. He’s a particular black man in a particular city in a particular era of social change, chafing under the weight of injustices both real and perceived; but he’s also every son in life and literature who ever rebelled against his controlling father, only to become the same kind of father to his own offspring, and to shape them to replicate his own mistakes even as they rebel in their turns.
Troy is also a charmer in his way: a born storyteller, affording the audience glimpses of his hardscrabble backstory that are far too elegantly spun to be dismissed as mere “exposition,” even in this more visual medium. His admiring best friend and gentle counselor Bono (a wonderful Stephen McKinley Henderson) tells him, “You must have some Uncle Remus in your blood.” Troy claims to have wrestled with both Death and the Devil and is ready to take them on again anytime. But in his efforts to be a dutiful, responsible husband and father, he fails to discern the emotional needs of those closest to him. The fences that he is building to keep a hostile world at bay only serve in the end to estrange him from those who love him most.
Denzel Washington makes a spellbinding Troy, alternately seething with resentment and bursting with appetite for life. He’s especially intense in his scenes with Jovan Adepo as his younger son Cory – a sports prodigy whose chance at a football scholarship triggers Troy’s suspicion and anger over his own inability to break into Major League baseball, following a stellar run in the Negro Leagues in his youth. Elevating such mundane family tensions to the level of magical realism is the intermittent, angelic presence of Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), whose head wound in World War II has left him mentally unmoored and easily exploited.
Amongst all these fine performances, the one that shines most brightly is Viola Davis’ long, slow smolder as Troy’s devoted-but-feisty wife Rose. It’s not until late in the second act that she gets her big soliloquy, but it’s a stunner, cementing her ever-growing reputation as one of the greatest actresses of our time. Though Washington deserves high praise for bringing this classic to the screen with such fidelity and power, and for embodying Troy Maxson so thoroughly, it’s Davis who can seemingly do no wrong these days. Twice nominated for Academy Awards previously, for Doubt in 2009 and The Help in 2012, this may finally be her year to take that golden boy home – and well-earned.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.