FENCES—-watching Denzel Washington’s work in the 2012 Flight, swooping and landing with the immeasurable skill of an ace pilot, I thought that, at that stage and age in his career, it was likely the last great role he’d ever get. Not only was he superb, but it was extra cheer-worthy as a reminder he still had the stuff, coming after a slew of mediocre action flicks. Four years and three more lame actioners later, he slams a home run out of the park with this 2016 drama, while holding the reins of director as well.
Before he died in 2005, August Wilson wrote the screen adaptation of his 1983 Pulitzer winning play. Washington and castmates Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson recreate their roles from one of the stage productions, and are joined by Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Saniyya Sydney.
Lower middle class African-American Pittsburgh in the 50s. An ebullient but embittered garbageman diligently puts bread on the table for his family, mixing his expansive bursts of cheer with self-justifying railing to all in his orbit—patient wife, browbeaten sons, steadying best friend and impaired brother—about How Life Is, based on his, an unyielding mix of prejudice, bad luck and his own damn fault. Ties of love, blood, loyalty and trust carry to the point where they begin to buckle under the strain of ‘Troy Maxson’s dictum’s and the rules of his dominion.
Real Life stuff, but hyper-driven theatrically in the manner of a play. You quickly sense, and don’t forget you’re watching, or more precisely, listening to, a stage-designed dramatic vehicle, where words carry more weight than movement, and the movement is restricted to a few settings. It starts in a burst of sustained verbal energy akin to an action scene using words instead of bullets (occasionally, as bullets) and the pace rarely slackens, so by the end of 139 minutes, while dazzled by the dynamo acting you are also, like the long-suffering people moons in planet Troy’s orbit, worn down by the strain and pain.
As good as Washington’s centerpiece is– a surging, rollicking, challenging, bullying, pitiful bruised bruiser of a wounded titan (a good percentage of his woes are self-inflicted)–and as well-tuned as the other characterizations are (by the persuasive actors more than the overloaded text), the beating heart of the piece isn’t the oxygen-consuming Troy, but the luminous ‘Rose’ inhabited with shining eyes and righteous truth by the grand Viola Davis. Blossoming, adorning, wilting, enduring, the disheveled Davis and dignified Rose fuse into a signature gift of natural-born beauty. Troy’s an idiot.
Produced for $24,000,000, with barely adequate returns of $54,000,000, despite adulatory reviews. Davis took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while nominations were logged for Best Picture, Actor (Washington) and Screenplay.