Fences

 

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby

Director: Denzel Washington

Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's century-spanning play is, first and foremost, a dissection of African American life working dutifully under the control of white society. It showcases the thankless plight of black citizens toiling under the burden of menial jobs in order to provide for their families, and particularly zeroes in on the idea of the patriarch as tragic figure. Washington honors Wilson's prose by refusing to sugarcoat the writer's nuanced take on how white culture can eat a black man's soul from the inside out, and casting himself as a troubled, flawed, and unsympathetic character is certainly noteworthy. Still, if as a filmmaker, Washington succeeds at extrapolating the play's larger themes, he largely misses an opportunity to deepen the psychological and emotional undercurrents. 

Formally, Washington chooses to block and stage his film timidly; almost as if he's afraid to take away the actor's ability to work through Wilson's poetic monologues. This really isn't a criticism of "opening up" things cinematically (most of the action takes place in a backyard and a few home interiors, which is appropriate given the source material), but rather, of finding compelling ways to frame his actors in order to deliver a sense of emotional impact. Truthfully, the film might have been made more effective had it done away with historical specificity altogether, as it's never believable for a moment that we are watching anything other than talented thespians standing around reciting dense, if oftentimes memorable, dialogue. Placing this story within a certain time and place is legitimate, but Washington never seems concerned with contextual authenticity. Instead, his interest lies in the inter-personal dynamics of family; the relationship between father and son, husband and wife, alcoholic and failed athlete.

The bulk of the narrative revolves around hardened patriarch Troy (Washington), charting passive-aggressive interactions with his teenage son, Cory (Jordan Adepo), who dreams of becoming a professional ball player, a strained relationship with his devoted wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and some drunken macho repartee with fellow co-worker, Bono (Stephen Henderson). There's also another son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby), a musician whom Troy regards with complete indifference. Washington's central performance is frothing and near demonic; all huge gestures and coiled machismo, but what might play powerfully on stage comes across a bit labored on screen. There's simply no modulation to Washington's performance; and his straining for effect means that he devours everyone else onscreen. This is intentional, of course, but Troy always feels like a construct rather than a flesh and blood human being. Davis fares much better as a woman dutifully going through the motions of being a good wife and mother. Her tearful, wrenching monologue after years of passiveness is one of the film's most powerful moments, but she also excels in smaller scenes where she reacts quietly to Troy's ego-driven episodes.

The best thing about Fences, beyond committed performances, is the text's commitment to the notion of white society crushing the lives of decent, hard-working African Americans who helped build and maintain American infrastructure. Troy's downfall isn't simply a result of racism (there's a self-righteousness here which has more to do with misplaced masculinity), but there's nonetheless a clear link to the thesis that in this particular time and place, black lives simply did not matter. Sadly, the post-Civil Rights era (Fences takes place just before this transition) was meant to heal and rebuild these bridges, but instead opened up even more wounds and bigotry. Wilson and by extension, Washington, captures this feeling without coping out, but there's still a perfunctory flatness in the delivery here which slightly undermines the film's thematic power.