Directed by Denzel Washington.
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, and Russell Hornsby.
Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh ‘Fences’ follows Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Davis) over the course of a decade. Adapted from the August Wilson play it is one of ten which sought to verbalise and explore the African American experience specifically. A body of work which is now referred to as the ‘August Wilson Century Cycle’.
To fully appreciate this film ignorance of any back history is essential. However if that is unavoidable and you arrive knowing that Washington and Davis performed Fences on stage, with it will come a certain amount of expectation. And thankfully on this occasion the acclaim is not without merit, as both bring chemistry, knowledge and depth to their portrayals of Troy and Rose Maxson. Other players to make the leap include Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Jim Bono, Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel and Russell Hornsby’s Lyons. Meaning that Fences delivers on characterisation as well as offering up moments where both leads can grandstand. And in the process make the transition from stage to screen seem effortless.
Williamson’s Gabriel is a performance grounded in subtlety and heartbreak, who is able to hold the attention without resorting to clichés or scenery chewing. While Hornsby’s Lyons gives dignity to the portrayal of a slighted and browbeaten eldest son, forever in his fathers’ shadow but asking only for acceptance. Just as Henderson’s Jim Bono plays the warm-hearted centre to Troy’s brash and overbearing patriarch, offering balance amongst the emotional isolation and crumbling family unit.
Held together by Rose and Cory, an understated Jovan Adepo, who bear the brunt of Troy’s frustrations, disappointments and all too human flaws. Stoically loyal, emotionally dependent and consumed by a man unable to stop himself from destroying the family he loves. Rose perseveres, manages and mollycoddles Troy’s man child mentality and macho posturing until he finally crosses the line. It is this performance which has rightfully drawn awards and Oscar buzz, as Davis delivers yet another peerless piece of work.
Washington as director is measured, selective and lets his actors control the pace without enforcing restrictions. His is a film of moments whether symbolic or emotionally honest, each one brings a quiet dignity to their portrayal without betraying any theatrical roots. A feat which was made slightly easier for Washington as the film already existed. To what extent Fences stands alongside Antwone Fisher, and The Great Debaters is open to question however, as each was picked with care and deliberation before any emotional connection to the material was considered. A theory which is backed up by the man himself who took seven years before he felt confident enough to direct the piece. A tactic which in today’s marketplace is not only sensible but essential, as investors expect profit irrespective of track record or star power.
And so we come to the role of colour and its’ impact on this adaptation. Which gets side lined early on in favour of themes of dysfunction, either familial, professional or personal. Wilson makes it clearer and clearer that this domestic drama and these problems play out differently only in terms of language and cultural expectations not skin colour. This epiphany is what makes Fences breathe, allowing Denzel Washington to craft a film of quiet beauty and elegant frustration with universal concerns. Drawing nuanced performances from an ensemble cast which not only validates emotional investment, but encourages a repeat viewing.