Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I had heard a great deal of hype about Fences, a film based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. The film starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, reprising roles from the play’s 2010 revival that earned them Tony Awards. This time around, Viola Davis won an Academy Award for her role. I love Viola Davis and the previews looked interesting. I’d even received a snippet of music from the film for review. I decided I wanted to check this film out.
The movie begins in 1950s Pittsburgh and revolves around Troy Maxson’s family. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a sanitation worker who wants more. Tired of hauling garbage, he fights to enable blacks to become sanitation truck drivers and wins. It’s one victory in a string of losses for Troy who is bitter about losing the opportunity to play major league baseball because he was too old to play by the time the league started recruiting blacks.
When Troy is happy, he spreads the wealth with tall tales that make his longtime friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) and wife Rose (Viola Davis) laugh until tears come out of their eyes. Much of his vitriol is saved for his sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). Lyons was born long before Troy met Rose and fancies himself a jazz performer. Troy believes that being a musician is a go nowhere job and sees the proof in his beliefs every time he needs to lend money to his son. Cory dreams of a career in football, but, having been robbed of an opportunity to play a sport he loves professionally because of the color of his skin, Troy is utterly against his son playing sports.
As the movie progresses we learn other reasons for Troy’s foul moods. There is the guilt he feels over the serious head injury his younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) sustained in World War II. He received $3,000 for his mental impairment which was the only way Troy could afford to by the house he raised his family in. There is guilt over his beginnings with his abusive father and the life he made for himself at the age of thirteen which landed him in prison for murder. There is anger over his being passed over for baseball for the color of his skin. There is anger at the world for the way he is treated due to his skin color. And there is guilt for the dalliance he has been entertaining with another woman…soon to be the mother of his only daughter. And all the while, Troy is battling with the Grim Reaper who, in his mind, has been taking from him all his life, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to take Troy.
A central arc in this film is the building of a fence around the side of the Maxson’s home. They don’t exactly need a fence, but there is a subconscious reasoning behind the fence that Rose wants her husband to build. While most fences are designed to keep undesirables out, Rose wants this fence to keep the people she loves in. Her husband has been distant, spending a great deal of time away from the house. Her son is getting older and becoming a man. His run-ins with his father are bound to chase him away. Rose is scared of losing everything she loves and so the fence becomes her way of holding on to the people she loves most.
This is only the second film I have seen Denzel Washington in where I have disliked the character he portrays. Usually, the character is flawed in some way, shape or form – where else would all the drama come from, right? But in Fences, Troy Maxson is more than flawed – he’s downright bitter. He’s an angry man who lashes out at the world. He basically tells his sons that he doesn’t love them – that they are his responsibility and so he has seen them raised well because of that responsibility. In retrospect, we can see that Troy is a product of his upbringing. He doesn’t know how to express love properly. We can see he wants his sons to fare better than he has in his life, but he doesn’t seem to know how to express this in ways they can understand. It isn’t until the end of the film that Cory realizes what his father meant to him, because throughout the film, their interactions have been limited to mainly angry exchanges. Of course, the fact that Denzel Washington is capable of making us dislike Troy speaks to his ability as an actor.
Who we really end up feeling for here is Rose. Viola Davis’s portrayal of the long-suffering wife of Troy Maxson is simply amazing. We wonder how Rose can continue to stay with Troy after all he has put her through, continuing to love him despite his faults. We cheer for every time Rose stands up for herself in this film and secretly wish she did it more. Viola Davis is one of those actresses that can make you feel every emotion through her facial expressions alone. Her acting is always spot on for whatever role she takes, but her performance in Fences was well deserving of the Academy Award it earned her.
Fences is an incredibly dramatic film that pulls at the heartstrings. The movie features quite a few metaphors for life, but if you are not looking for a thinking man’s film, Fences is still quite entertaining. There are terrific performances by all of those involved and the script is simply excellent. August Wilson and Denzel Washington did an excellent job in adapting the play to film. Fences is definitely a must see!