Film Review – Fences
Fences is a film adaptation of a play by renowned playwright August Wilson. He also wrote the screenplay, even though he died in 2005. The play originally debuted in 1983, but it took a former star of the play to bring the film version to the big screen.
Fences follows the relationship between Troy (Denzel Washington, also the director) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis) and Troy’s tumultuous view of life as a black man in the 1950s. Troy is a trash collector working to support his wife and teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy muses on life as a black man with his friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), as he tries to go up against his white boss to try to become a trash truck driver, a job that no black man has at the company. Troy makes a decent living, and that is known by his grown son (by another woman), Lyons (Russell Hornsby). Lyons stops by every now and then to borrow money and lament his career as a musician, for which Troy has no sympathy. Completing the cast of characters is Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who is mentally-challenged due to a WWII injury, but provides the innocence and comedy for the film.
Both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis played the same characters in the revival of the play on Broadway in 2010. This solidifies their performances and gives them no hesitation as the lines roll off their tongues, as if it is second nature to these actors. To see these two actors go up against each other in fits of passion, anger, and rage is a sight to behold. Even the quieter scenes have moments that rock you to your core. Because this is based on a play, there are not extraneous settings, special effects, or complicated imagery. It is wholly about the characters, their moments of happiness, trials in life, and Denzel and Viola are here to show you what damn fine actors they are, even if you don’t love or identify with the characters they are playing.
This is not a happy film, although there are few laughs provided throughout. It is a commentary on life of a working black man in the 1950s, probably one more well-off than most. It becomes more a problem for Rose when Troy decides he cannot laugh and relax when he is in their house. As stoic and righteous as Troy believes he is, he reasons with Rose that a mistake he made was not really his fault. After this, Rose becomes the most interesting character in the film as we watch her cope with Troy’s mistake and figure out what to do. As a woman, I struggled to see how Rose could do what she does for Troy, but options for her were limited as a black woman in the 1950s.
My only complaint with Fences is its length. It felt long with the acts of the play transitioning into breaks in the film. I honestly was tired of hearing Troy talk by the end, so I can’t imagine what Rose had to put up with in the world of Fences.
Is Fences a holiday film? No. Is it worthy Oscar bait? Yes. This may be the most beautifully performed film of 2016 due to a cast that truly embraces their characters. Not all plays can be successfully translated to films, but this is one where the words, setting, and the actors all combined to make a powerful film on struggle, love, strength, and forgiveness.