Synopsis: 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.
Release Date: December 25, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
There are two Denzel Washingtons. The first, the one that everyone knows and loves, is the actor who has proven his talent and range in movies as varied as Flight and The Magnificent Seven. Since Antwone Fisher, however, there has also been a Denzel Washington who has dabbled in directing, tossing a movie out every five or ten years. The newest one of these, a film adaptation of the August Wilson play Fences, really drives home the differences between the two Denzels.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is about a man named Troy Maxson (Washington) who played baseball in the Negro Leagues and has settled into life as a garbage collector in the years since his retirement. Troy played in the days before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the MLB, and he bitterly complains about how he was never given a chance to shine as a ball player at the major league level. His wife, Rose (The Help‘s Viola Davis), thinks it was his age and not his skin color that kept him out of the big leagues. Troy’s son, Cory (Jovan Adepo from “The Leftovers”), has the chance to play football in front of a college recruiter, but his father won’t allow it. Troy says that Cory has to work, but Cory believes that the real reason Troy wants to squash his plans is because he doesn’t want his son to become a more successful athlete than he was. Rose is stuck in the middle between her husband and son as they jockey for position and power in the family hierarchy.
August Wilson adapted his own play by writing the screenplay for Fences, and Denzel Washington the director shows immense respect for the source material. And therein lies the problem with the movie. In short, it seems like exactly what it is: a filmed adaptation of a play. It’s extremely wordy, and all of the creative angles and interesting camera motion in the world can’t distract from that fact. Essentially, Fences is two hours and eighteen minutes of people talking. It’s the kind of thing that works well on a stage, but not so well on a screen.
It’s not all Fences‘ fault, though. Somehow, it’s ingrained in Hollywood’s mind that Academy Award-caliber films have to be excruciatingly long – if a story can be told in ninety minutes, add some dialogue until it’s a two and a half hour movie. Fences suffers from this; it’s an awards grab that forgets to tell an interesting story. It gets bonus awards points for riding the same “Oscars So White” backlash that’s also buoying movies like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Loving.
Awards pandering aside, Fences is long and tedious. There are a handful of great moments, but the little naps in between the scene-stealers are too much to sit through for most people. There is an audience for Fences; it’s the crowd that wants to take a night off from sitting in a darkened live theater to sit in a movie theater instead.
For as much as Denzel Washington the director drops the ball with Fences, Denzel Washington the actor steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park (you didn’t think we’d get through this review without any baseball metaphors, did you?). As wordy as the script is, Fences is more than just memorizing lines and reciting them back (although, with the sheer amount of speeches and monologues in the film, that’s an impressive part of the feat). Washington and Viola Davis put a ton of raw emotion into their performances, and the chemistry that the pair shares onscreen is undeniable. Jovan Adepo holds his own while going toe-to-toe with Washington, showing that the young man has a bright future. The support cast is brilliant as well; Stephen Henderson (Manchester by the Sea) plays Troy’s best friend and sounding board, Mykelti Williamson (The Purge: Election Year) portrays Troy’s younger brother who was wounded while in the army, and Russell Hornsby (“Grimm”) shows up as Troy’s older deadbeat son. There’s not a weak link in the cast of Fences, and their incredible performances kind of make the viewer wish that the talented ensemble had been given a better script with which to work.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Denzel Washington
- Producer(s): Todd BlackScott RudinDenzel Washington
- Screenwriter(s): August Wilson
- Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson)Viola Davis (Rose Maxson)Stephen Henderson (Jim Bono) Jovan Adepo (Cory)Russell Hornsby (Lyons)Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel)Saniyya Sidney (Raynell)Christopher Mele (Deputy Commisioner)Lesley Boone (Evangelist Preacher)Jason Silvis (Garbage Truck Driver)
- Editor(s): Hughes Winborne
- Cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
- Casting Director(s): Victoria Thomas
- Music Score: Marcelo Zarvos
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA