‘Fences’ a fantastic and rare gift
Published: Dec 30, 2016
Fences (Rated T)
On Christmas Day, Hollywood blessed us with a fantastic and rare gift – a superbly cast, beautifully acted drama, and quite possibly the best ensemble of the year.
And here’s my fearless prediction: you’ll likely be exhausted from seeing Viola Davis holding awards by the time she ascends the dais at the Academy Awards on February 26, 2017, to finally accept her Oscar for the new family drama, “Fences”.
No, those nominations have not even been announced yet (that happens on January 24), but trust me, the two-Oscar nominee (and Emmy and two-time Tony winner) delivers one of the greatest performances of the year!
But Davis is only part of the amazing “Fences” story, which is positively overflowing with strong characterizations. At the heart of it all is the spectacular Denzel Washington.
Washington also directs this film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the late August Wilson. The 1987 Broadway version won numerous Tony Awards, including Best Play, as well as Leading Actor in a Play for the legendary James Earl Jones, and Best Performance by a Featured Actress for Mary Alice, in the same roles played by Washington and Davis, respectively, in this new film version.
In fact, Washington and Davis starred in the Broadway revival of the play back in 2010, and both won Tony Awards (both, interestingly, in the Lead Acting categories). That play also won the Tony for Best Revival of a play.
So, this material historically attracts a lot of award recognition. Davis has already won Best Supporting Actress at the Critics’ Choice Awards. She’s nominated in the same category for next month’s Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards, in a role that could easily (and probably should) be in a Lead Actress category.
Washington, too, has been nominated for nearly every Lead Actor award so far. And with such a stellar body of work, it would be difficult to say with certainty, but this is arguably the best performance of his amazing career, and definitely one of his most complex.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh, and Davis plays his dutiful wife Rose. Troy once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but was deemed too old when the major leagues began admitting black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, Troy creates further tension in his family when he squashes his son Cory's (Jovan Adepo) chance to meet a college football recruiter.
Where Washington shines is his portrayal of a man who’s not exactly a guy most of us would want to be stuck with at a dinner table. Troy’s not a bad guy, but he’s not the nicest guy either. He means well, but life has dealt him a very tough hand.
There’s a very thin line between liking or even just understanding the motivations of a character like Troy and hating his guts. Washington strikes this delicate balance. While the two-time Oscar winner’s role as a very bad cop in “Training Day” is unforgettable, it may actually be easier to play a full on bad guy than to get an audience to feel sympathy for Troy – which you probably will, seeing him as a tragic figure.
Washington’s direction of the film is getting notice and award-buzz as well. Overall, it’s not entirely perfect, but it’s pretty close. One minor flaw – very noticeable in the few 15 minutes or so – is how the material is so obviously based on a play, with very stage-like extended conversations and the odd flow of the dialogue. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it is clearly not in keeping with the short scenes and heavy movement or action common to most films today. But as we learn more about the characters, you notice this much less.
“Fences” may be set in 1950s Pittsburgh, but don’t be surprised if you walk away thinking either The Bahamas in 2016 is in a time-warp, or that life hasn’t really changed much at all for anybody since the middle of the last century – especially when you hear Rose talk about playing numbers, or as the family deals with some very contemporary problems.
But this is primarily a character study, and you’re likely to recognize or relate to most, if not all, of these characters. Everyone knows someone Rose and Troy. Troy is perhaps just like your father, or uncle or cousin, or God Forbid (and God help you) just like you!
As such, make some wise choices when it comes to with whom you choose to watch this movie. Capable of stirring up some powerful emotions, some of these issues may hit uncomfortably close to home for many. It felt like church in the screening I attended, with all the “amens”, and the cacophony of coughs in the theater during several poignant scenes, clearly designed to mask the widespread sobbing.
Holding up a very clear and giant mirror to society is a great gift for any time of the year!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “ Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.