Just give Viola Davis the Oscar now and save us all some time.
I’m not really a gambling gal, but if I was I’d put everything I have on the fact that when the gold statuettes are given out at the Academy Awards ceremony in February, Viola Davis will have one in her hand for her performance in Fences. It’s not easy to steal scenes from Denzel Washington, but she manages to do it regularly. Seriously – no one can ugly cry like this woman.
Viola Davis is the main reason to see Fences, but there are plenty of other reasons to recommend the movie as well. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by August Wilson, Fences features excellent performances and a compelling story. Almost all the leads in the film are reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, which gives the performances a lived-in feeling that only comes from doing the same dialogue eight times a week in front of a live audience. They know these characters – what makes them tick and their motivations. The staging of Fences in the film is more expansive, but still feels like a play. If you aren’t used to going to the theater, the pattern of the dialogue may take a little adjusting to; Washington’s character, in particular, is prone to a lot of “speechifying.”
Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on the Maxson family – patriarch Troy (Washington), his wife Rose (Davis), their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s brother Gabe (Myketi Williamson), Troy’s son Lyons from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s longtime best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy and Jim work as garbage collectors, but Troy used to be a talented baseball player who never made the transition from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball, whether because of his advanced age or, as Troy believes, because the color of his skin. Troy runs his home with an iron fist, often coming into conflict with Cory, who wants to play football and is being recruited for a college team. Troy is often estranged from various members of his family throughout the film and Fences chronicles the familial drama and ebb and flow of these relationships. Fences is a small movie in that it is more a character study of this particular family and there isn’t a ton of “action.” But there is strength from this intimacy; it allows the viewer to really get to know these characters as people and feel invested in their lives. It also gives the perfect showcase for the actors to shine. Washington also directed the film.
The role of Troy is a little different than what we’ve come to expect from Denzel Washington; when I mentioned to people that I was going to see this movie, they asked if he played a cop in it. Washington does tend to stick to his strengths when picking roles, but in Fences those manifest themselves in slightly different ways. He’s great as Troy – a man that you don’t necessarily like the more you get to know him, but who you at least come to understand his view of the world. Washington knows how to make Troy perfectly charming one minute and then make you want to smack him the next. Throughout the film, Troy references his battles with the Grim Reaper, but he’s also wrestling with a lot of demons. What I particularly liked about Fences is that all of these characters have hidden layers and the movie takes its time peeling them back and showing us another facet of their personality or world experience. That nuance gives the actors a lot to work with and the talented cast assembled eats that opportunity up with a spoon.
Though this film is anchored by the powerhouse performances of Davis and Washington, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give credit to the supporting cast as well. They all bring something to the table and their characters provide some crucial insights into who Troy is. His interactions with his brother Gabe are particularly illuminating, as we see a part of his personality that few other characters can illuminate. Mykelti Williamson is saddled with perhaps the most problematic role – the depiction of the mentally impaired feels very outdated and there are a lot of clichés associated with Gabe – but Williamson somehow makes most of it work. As the newcomer to the cast, Jovan Adepo manages to hold his own. He was not in the Broadway revival, but he can go toe to toe with Washington, which is no small feat. Adepo’s acting credits are sparse, but I think that’s about to change.
I didn’t see the revival of Fences on Broadway, but after seeing the film I feel like I have. I’m guessing that not much changed in the transition from stage to film and Washington definitely directed a very bare bones production. The open sequence of Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson on their trash route is the most cinematic segment of the movie. The rest of the film is very small, rarely leaving the confines of the Maxson homestead. Fences is very much a stage play that happened to be filmed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was an intermission during the film (there wasn’t), because it so accurately captured the experience of going to the theater. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but there don’t need to be when the actors are providing all the action.
Fences isn’t a particularly flashy movie, but it boasts some truly fantastic acting performances. Viola Davis shines in this film; my only complaint is that she is submitting herself in the supporting actress category, which I think minimizes how central she is to this film and the amount of screen time that she receives. Otherwise, despite the ridiculously talented cast that surrounds her, she is the true standout. 2016 was generally a crappy year for movies, but I have to give it credit for ending strong with films like Fences. Led by Washington and Davis, this movie provides the opportunity for some of our best actors to do their thing and it is a pleasure to behold.