Film Review: Fences

by Carrie Kahn on December 25, 2016

Powerful performances anchor heavy family drama

Young Cory (Jovan Adepo, l.) doesn’t see eye to eye with his father Troy (Denzel Washington).

If you’re finishing up Christmas dinner later this evening and contemplating a trip to the cinema for a new release the whole family can enjoy, you may be better off today with Hidden Figures, and not Fences. That’s not to say Fences doesn’t warrant a recommendation; it certainly does, but let’s just say during a time of year in which your own family issues and simmering resentments might be coming to the forefront, watching another family going through the same may not be high on your list.

Indeed, Fences, the film version of August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer and Tony-award winning play, is a dense and heady family drama that packs a heavy emotional punch. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Tony Award winning roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, and Washington also directs, from the screenplay Wilson wrote before his death in 2005. The result is a tour de force of masterful acting in a film that, while often fiercely intense and deeply engaging, can also be somewhat stagy and tonally meandering.

Wilson’s story takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh, and revolves around Troy Maxson (Washington), a one-time baseball player in the Negro Leagues, and current garbage collector living with Rose (Davis), his wife of 18 years, and their headstrong teenage football-playing son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Also in Troy’s orbit are his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), brain damaged from a war injury, Bono (Stephen Henderson), Troy’s colleague and best friend, and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older, always-broke musician son from a brief first marriage. Various conflicts between Troy and these other characters – particularly Rose and Cory – make up the bulk of the film’s story.

Rose (Viola Davis) in a contemplative moment.

The film, as would be expected from a movie based on a play, is light on action and very heavy on dialogue, and monologues, too, for that matter. In fact, the entire first quarter or so of the film is basically a long conversation between Troy, Bono, and Rose as they sit on their porch, with no background music present until well into the film. This extended dialogue against a silent backdrop replicates the feel of a stage play, but something about seeing the play’s words performed on screen and not in a three dimensional, interactive theater makes what you’re watching seem somewhat flat and unnatural. Once the music kicks in and some movement occurs, however, we find ourselves drawn in a little more fully, and we began to relax and lose ourselves in the story and the performances. So rest assured — if you can get past the initial awkward staginess, you’ll be rewarded.

And rewarded is indeed the word, as both Washington – and Davis, especially – give performances for the ages. Washington loses all vanity here, gaining weight for the role, and bringing an unlikable, deeply bitter and flawed man to life in a manner that allows us to see both Troy’s charm and his weaknesses. But Davis is the one who truly owns this picture, and I’m predicting she’ll win Oscar for her efforts. Watch her in a scene in which she has a furious fight with Troy, and you’ll see a an actress of consummate ability, giving a raw, wrenching, and stunning performance that you’ll be thinking about for days.

The supporting cast, too, is uniformly terrific, with young Adepo (HBO’s The Leftovers) more than holding his own against Washington in some harsh, powerful scenes. And Mykelti Williamson takes a notoriously difficult kind of role and imbues it with honesty, humor, and grace.

Bono (Stephen Henderson, l.) has a chat with Troy (Denzel Washington) after their shift.

The picture also benefits from being filmed in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, one plus to moving away from the stage, as the location adds authenticity, and gives us a richer sense of the close-knit, sometimes claustrophobic community in which Troy has settled. With its small yards (the metaphor of the film’s title becomes clear as we see much of the story unfold in Troy’s yard) and close row house, the Pittsburgh neighborhood is the perfect backdrop to watch Troy ruminate on his past, present, and future, as he considers his life choices, regrets, and mistakes.

So if you’ve had enough of arguing with your own family this weekend and want to take a break to watch someone else’s hash it out, give Fences a go. The struggles of an African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh may initially seem long ago and far removed, but as you watch their story, you’ll realize their concerns are just as relevant today, and that our unceasing human drama deserves the brutal and astonishing performances we are treated to here.

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Fences opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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