HOLLYWOOD—I love awards season people and I will tell you why: great movies tend to be showcased! December is that month that sees the kick-off of those small indie flicks that flood movie theaters that most Americans would never see on a given day. One of those movies would be “Fences” starring two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis. Now it’s worth noting, the movie is based off of the 1983 play “Fences” by August Wilson that analyzes the struggle of an African-American family in the 1950s.
I’m always a bit skeptical about plays that are adapted to movies because that tendency for things to be overly theatrical comes to light. Washington not only stars in the drama, but also plays the role of director and producer. Washington previously helmed the 2005 flick “Antoine Fisher” and the 2007 flick “The Great Debaters.” However, the one caveat that I can’t shy away from is the fact that the first opening act comes across very stagey for me. Its sensational acting from Washington, but as a spectator I got the sense that I was watching an extended monologue, perhaps because I’m familiar with the play from my academic studies.
The film takes a close analysis at Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Viola Davis). Troy is the man of the house, and he makes sure to echo that authority at every given moment. Davis is exceptionally well at conveying the authority her husband has over her with the slightest facial expressions and body movements that at times convey a sense of dread or fear when her husband arrives home or enters a room.
Troy, who deals with the daily hassle of hauling others trash wants gratitude from his family, his close confidant Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) echoes his pal’s frustration. Henderson is superb at delivering comic relief throughout this tense drama. The comedy never appears out of the blue, but serves as a nice transition from one situation to the next.
Troy seems annoyed by his eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who only stops by on his father’s pay day. He has to grapple with guilt of the mental illness his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) suffers from as a result of fighting in the war. Not to mention his quest to teach his youngest son Cory (Joven Adepo) the importance of being a man is taxing on our protagonist. Williamson while not a major star of the movie makes the most of the smallest scenes and conveys a sense of strength in a character that not many understand, but as a viewer you want to.
Cory has the same athletic drive his father once possessed, although Troy’s quest to be a baseball star were dashed not by his talent, but his constant complaints that he was playing a sport dominated by Whites not welcoming of Blacks. Troy’s failure to see the potential his son possesses causes a rift between father and son, which seems rooted in jealously not from a parent hoping to get their child to focus on education.
The friction between father and son is so powerful that any man can recollect similar dynamics in their relationship with their father; the good, the bad and perhaps the downright ugly. What plays well for “Fences” is the level of sophistication and powerful acting from Washington and Davis. Troy is a very flawed character, and Washington plays to those strengths and weaknesses in the narrative, where the audience sees glimmer of hope from a character, but at the same time moments of disgust that forces one to acknowledge that no human being is perfect.
Davis has a slow build up to that climatic moment that has been teased in trailers and TV spots. It is the quintessential moment that I like to call the ‘Oscar moment.’ It is so powerful, so riveting, it could earn the actress that long-awaited Oscar that has eluded her in the past. Its powerful acting, and seeing Washington and Davis go toe-to-toe as husband and wife is gripping.
Adepo is a fine actor able to hold his own on the big screen with Washington during the big climax between father and son that will have audiences clamoring to their seats wondering the outcome. “Fences,” while it has a few hiccups in the narrative that starts of slightly stagey, finds its footing to a narrative that is identifiable of American life. The struggles of balancing work, family, finances, love, jealously, mental illness and adversity is a bit much for anyone to deal with in life.
Regardless of your skin color or economic status “Fences” will delve deep into one’s psyche. This is a movie that is a testament that top-notch acting can drive a narrative and enhance the supporting roles of those in their presence.