Hot Take: Does Denzel Washington ever turn in a bad performance? The only thing here is he’s outdone by Viola Davis. Her amazing performance should win her an Oscar.
If you’re being fair, the worst thing you can say about Fences is it felt like it was meant for a different medium. Despite the big screen conversion, its playhouse roots are evident in the final product. Because of that, you don’t get a cinematic masterpiece. However, because of the performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (Davis especially!) you get one of the most engrossing films of 2016.
Washington (who also directs) plays Troy Maxson. A black man in 1950s Pittsburgh who can’t let go of the fact he never made it to Major League Baseball because of his advanced age despite a successful Negro League career. He’s married to Rose (Davis) who humors his frequent outbursts along with his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Rose and Jim Bono spend a lot of time listening to Troy’s tall tales of battling the Grim Reaper during his youth and Troy’s very narrow, opinionated view of the world.
Troy has a son by another woman who only comes around when he wants money. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a fledgling musician who refuses to get a steady job in favor of surviving on the occasional gig and whatever Rose will lend him after Troy emasculates him for coming around to borrow a few bucks. Troy and Rose have a son of their own. Cory (Jovan Adepo) is in high school and has enough athletic talent that a football scholarship could be in his future. The only thing standing in his way is Troy who requires him to work which prevents Cory from focusing on football as much as he needs to. Troy also has a brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) who suffered a head injury during World War II and his government payout helped Troy buy a house for his family.
The film centers around Troy’s frequent outbursts and confrontations with everyone in his life. Often, it features some tense moments between Troy and Cory. After Rose asks Troy to build a fence around their house, Troy demands Cory help him as punishment for not doing chores and focusing on football which Troy feels is a waste of time as he compares it to his failure to become a successful ballplayer. Troy and Cory have frequent run-ins about the fence and occasionally things almost become physical. As Troy says when his son asks him why he doesn’t like him, “It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you!”
As the film progresses, we get a better look at Troy and Rose’s relationship. As it becomes strained, this is where the talent of Davis becomes evident. Her performance in the second half of this film is one of the best in recent memory. The intensity with which she delivers her performance has very few parallels. This is a very interesting case, too, as there are a number of strong female performances in 2016 that, until Fences, made it very difficult to figure who might be the front-runner. However, after seeing Fences, it almost feels as if it is a no brainer.
Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, the 1983 play was recognized with a Pulitzer and a Tony Award in 1987. Due to Wilson’s insistence it be directed by an African American, the adaptation to the big screen struggled to see the light of day. Because of his familiarity with play (Washington starred in a revival of the play on Broadway in 2010) and his passion to see it reach a larger cinematic audience, Washington agreed to star and direct the film version. The cast was the same as the cast in the 2010 revival as well which speaks to how the ensemble performs so well together. Both Washington and Davis received Tony Awards in 2010 for their performance and it would be unsurprising to see both nominated for Oscars when nominees are announced later this month.
As mentioned before, Fences still feels very much like a play. This could be a hurdle for some expecting a different vibe. This is often the case with many plays adapted for the big screen. It’s evident in Fences and something you do have to get used to. Once you find the medium more comfortable, though and let yourself enjoy some absolutely amazing performances, Fences might become one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of 2016 for you… without being cinematic at all.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Performances
While there’s a lot to say about Washington and Davis, there really isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. I particularly enjoyed Henderson’s turn as Troy’s friend Jim Bono. The character actor shines in his role and delivers a performance largely overshadowed by the powerful ones from Washington and Davis but one that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.
- Capturing the Sentiment of the Time Period
Troy’s ups and downs represent a time when African Americans were allowed to only go so far. Although early on in the movie, Troy receives a promotion to driver at the sanitation company he works at, there are plenty of examples of how difficult the road was to get there.
- It’s Humanity Puts It All On the Line
The film can owe this to Washington and Davis especially who put everything they have into their performances. The complexity of human emotions is evident in Wilson’s words which are adapted to the big screen and on full display thanks to two amazing actors who work so well off of each other throughout the film.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- The Play’s the Thing
If you aren’t a fan of plays adapted for the cinema that can’t seem to shed their original skin, you’re probably in store for a long 2 hours and 13 minutes if you choose to see Fences despite the caveat.