Fences (2016)

  • Time: 139 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Denzel Washington
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson


An African-American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.


  • Fences is my latest review. It is based on a play and at times, it feels as such. Fences is a talky picture, made somewhat for the stage with its extended group scenes and singular moments of standoff violence. Don’t shy away though. This is still powerful stuff, with timed acting of the highest order.

    Denzel Washington stars, produces, and directs. His setting is 1950’s Pittsburgh. With a Christmas Day release and Washington playing opposite an actress like Viola Davis, you can almost smell the Academy Award nominations coming around the corner. You can also taste the Iron City Beer as well as the bottle of slow gin that Denzel’s main character (Troy Maxon) drinks on a regular basis.

    Washington works with about five locations in Fences such as the Maxon family home, the street said home is on, and a local bar. His direction is simplistically brilliant as he captures such an authentic sense of time and place. His cast (including himself) is saddled with heavy-handed dialogue that deems itself metaphoric in regards to race and the sport of baseball. Possessing gray stubble and a little extra weight put on, Denzel Washington gives maybe his best performance ever in the claustrophobic-like setting that Fences inhabits. He spits his lines like a pellet gun .177. His Maxon is a supporting father and shucked bastard all at the same time. Heck, Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. is flat out ferocious.

    Distributed by Paramount Pictures and containing a script adapted from famed playwright, August Wilson (it was completed right before his passing in 2005), Fences follows waste collector/promoted garbage driver, Troy Maxon (Washington). In his early days, Maxon was a Negro league baseball player. Even before that, he was a convicted murderer and robber who served some considerable time. Now Troy comes home from work to pal around with his best friend (Jim Bono played by Stephen Henderson), drink hard liquor, and reminisce about cheating pneumonia-related death as a youth.

    Watching Fences at a Tuesday screening, I wasn’t sure how long the time frame was. There is an elongated flash-forward progression toward its conclusion. Otherwise, most of the events in Fences could have taken place anywhere between 1-2 years. Its screenplay by the late August Wilson, recycles itself over and over again throughout the duration of Fences (139 minutes). It still regains its freshness with scenes that crackle and captivate. There’s conflict in this vehicle between father and son, father and estranged son, husband and wife, and friend to friend. The backyard baseball (on a rope) in Fences acts as a symbol. It’s a reminder of better times and simpler times for the volatile Troy.

    In conclusion, I’m hoping that when the dust settles and the end of January rolls around, Fences will garner Oscar consideration for Washington (Best Actor), Davis (Best Actress), and even Mykelti Williamson (Best Supporting Actor) as Maxon’s mentally impaired brother. Overall, Fences builds its own “fence” around almost everything that came out in 2016. It’s a real winner. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

    Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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  • There is many a devastating scene in Fences, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. That many of them are courtesy of stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both reprising their Tony Award-winning roles from the 2010 revival, comes as no surprise. The film, whilst not without its flaws, derives its potency from their performances as well as the poetically heightened realism of Wilson’s words.

    The sixth in Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycles, Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on Washington’s fifty-something Troy Maxson, a garbageman by profession and king of his domain once work is done at the end of each Friday. Those Fridays are what he lives for as it allows him to hold court in his backyard with his affable best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and wife of 18 years Rose (Davis), who humour his penchant for regaling them with seemingly tall tales from his life.

    Yet those tales serve a purpose for Troy who, like On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy, could have been a contender. Once a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, he had the misfortune to come along too early and never found fame or fortune despite his talents. He’s not particularly impressed with the fact that Jackie Robinson has opened up new opportunities in the sport for coloured men; his bitterness may emanate from the racial injustices of his own time, but it’s also a by-product of his self-importance. Telling tall tales may be an innocuous way of massaging his ego, but his resentment over what was denied him manifests itself in his treatment of his wife and two sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo).

    Occasional visits from Lyons, his estranged son from a previous marriage, stokes Troy’s ire. He refuses to believe that Lyons would ever pay back the money he so reluctantly loans to him and harangues Lyons for being a musician instead of holding down a responsible job. It must have been the way Lyons was raised, he concludes to which his son responds that Troy has no right to criticise how he was raised since he wasn’t around for the raising. Cory, his son with Rose, fares no better. Though Cory has an opportunity to interview with a college football recruiter, Troy dashes that dream for him. If he couldn’t succeed, then no one else can. When Cory wonders why his father doesn’t like him, Troy lashes out at him, “What law say I gotta like you?” As far as Troy is concerned, giving his family a roof over their heads and food on the table is his duty, love is not part of his responsibility.

    Then there’s Rose, who does her best to keep Troy from burning bridges with both his sons and keep her family together by asking her husband to build a literal and symbolic fence around their home. Marrying Rose may be the one good thing that Troy ever did, but she’s not immune from his selfishness. The moment when Rose realises the depth of Troy’s self-regard is one of searing heartbreak; Davis makes her pain all too palpable and her ensuing fury as she tells Troy of the sacrifices she’s made to keep the family intact is both wondrous and frightening to behold.

    Washington is equally superb as Troy, conveying both the man’s boundless charm and rotten righteousness. As director, he may perhaps be a touch too reverent to the source material, which was adapted for the screen by Wilson himself before his death in 2005 (playwright and co-producer Tony Kushner came on board to build on Wilson’s draft). As a film, Fences never truly relinquishes its theatrical roots, which is not necessarily a knock on either Wilson or Washington. It’s doubtful the film would have benefited from having its setting expanded, but it may have felt less stagebound with the elimination of certain characters (Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabe, played by Mykelti Williamson, is more symbol than character and feels particularly out of place outside the confines of the theater) and perhaps a bit more fluidity during the transitions between monologues.

    Nevertheless, Fences is a film of immense resonance in today’s day and age, a dense and daunting reminder that even the most ordinary of lives deserves to be acknowledged, and that the most mundane of lives can be elevated into art.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: Two of the year’s most outstanding performances help to elevate a flawed but effective transition from stage to screen.

    GRADE: B

    SYNOPSIS: A bitter and angry man destroys himself and his family.

    JIM’S REVIEW: That gifted writer August Wilson’s eloquence and poetic language remains intact in his 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play and this 2016 film version. But the transfer from stage to screen does little to hide its theatrical origins. Except for some mighty fine acting, the emotional connection is somehow off balance because the filmmaking lacks the nuanced cinematic expertise it needs.

    Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is an embittered black man whose early dreams of a baseball career were dashed by age, alcohol, and discrimination. Now he works as a garbageman in 1950’s Pittsburgh, providing for his family and never really finding true happiness for himself. He is estranged from one son from a former marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), bullies and thwarts the hopes of another son who wants a football career, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and tolerates his brain-injured older brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). All the while, his close friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Troy’s devoted wife, Rose (Viola Davis), act as his conscience, supporting him unconditionally and giving him sage advice, of which he continually ignores.

    What works well in a live theater production does not transition as well as a film. The filmmaking is competent enough but too conventional. The filming is basically straight-on shots and severe close-ups. The one set look (the back yard of the Maxson’s house) keeps the stagey quality front and center, although there are some different locations thrown in to break up the monotony. Much of the dialogue becomes too much allegory (Troy’s baseball references, the building of the fence itself, the constant alluding to the devil and the Grim Reaper, etc.) and never has a gritty authenticity to be truly convincing. Yet these monologues are still powerfully performed despite the artificiality and contrived plot mechanics on screen.

    Mr. Washington is the film’s director and he gives it a valiant try to open up this drama but he just can’t resist the urge to heighten the melodrama rather than underplay it. His vision is, at times, heavy-handed and lacks the subtlety and pathos that the text deserves. Stronger directorial restraint would have made the film even more effective.

    But it is the superb acting that sets this film apart from the routine. Mr. Washington is astounding. His larger-than-life performance shows his character’s pride and envy. The actor is not afraid to show the flaws in this man and Mr. Washington delivers his lines with the perfect tension and anger as he browbeats the people he loves. His Troy is far from likable, but one strangely feels empathy for this damaged man. Ms. Davis also has her moments of power and passion as she tries to cajole her husband and protect her son from her husband’s self-hatred. Her confrontation scene with Mr. Washington is flawless. The ensemble is uniformly fine, especially Mr. Henderson who downplays his role with the right degree of compassion and strength.

    Fences is excessively theatrical, more than it needed to be, but the moviegoing experience is still a highly rewarding and engrossing drama due to one of the best ensembles one will see this year.

    ANY COMMENTS: Please contact me at: jadepietro@rcn.com

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