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Three Views: Fences

January 18, 2017

Fences Review By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

fences-posterTroy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a man who is almost always talking, filled with stories and sharing his opinions on just about everything.  When Fences opens, we find him already in the middle of a conversation with his coworker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), as they both cling to the back of a garbage truck doing their jobs picking up trash on the streets of Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

We find out that Troy has asked about getting a promotion to drive the truck, but no black man has ever been hired as a driver before, and he worries for his job because he dared to even raise the topic to his white boss.  They go back to Troy’s yard and start sharing a bottle of alcohol.

Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) comes out and joins the conversation, then their adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) comes over looking to borrow ten dollars, which he is reluctant to hand over.  Working for your money and not owing debts are a big part of Troy’s philosophy, which is just one of the things we find out during this whirlwind opening sequence.  And for the first twenty minutes of Fences, Troy never stops talking as he moves from the back of a garbage truck, to his backyard and inside his house, with his charismatic monologues revealing so much about these characters and their world.

Troy is still struggling to overcome his failed dreams of having a career playing baseball, and is reluctant to support his teenage son Cory’s (Jovan Adepo) goal of getting a football scholarship, out of fear that his son will follow in the same path as him.  Cory is expected to spend the weekends helping his father build a fence in the backyard, which becomes symbolic of the barriers the characters are putting up between each other.  There’s also Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who never recovered from a brain injury during the war and now roams the streets with a horn believing himself to be waiting on a call from Saint Peter to summon open the gates to heaven, in another metaphor of fences.

Directed by Denzel Washington, Fences is the sort of film that is compelling thanks to the strengths of its writing and performances.  The story originated as a stage play written by August Wilson, and while this adaptation feels very much like a play that has been put on screen, the film also becomes a work of must see cinema in its own right.  The majority of Fences unfolds in the same house and yard, with extended sequences where hard truths are laid bare and characters break down.  This is a film propelled almost entirely by dialogue that is utterly gripping to watch unfold.

The film is carried by outstanding performances, the types of which provide a masterclass in acting that deserve to be studied even closer upon second viewing, starting with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising the roles they originally played on stage.  Denzel Washington delivers some of his finest work in Fences, and is mesmerizing to watch as the charismatic but deeply flawed figure at the centre of the story.  Whether swinging a bat to drive home the baseball analogies he uses to talk about his life, making wild proclamations about cheating death, or narrowing his eyes to tell an emotional story about his troubled past, we simply can’t take our eyes off of him as he moves through the scenes.

Viola Davis is equally strong and carries a big amount of the film’s emotional heavy lifting, especially in moments when her character breaks down, forced to confront her own broken dreams and stalled out life.  Stephen McKinley Henderson also provides a major fixture in many scenes, with Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo doing fine work as the two sons, and Mikelti Williamson turning in a memorable role that recalls his breakout performance as Bubba in Forrest Gump.

The film becomes a powerful saga of sons not wanting to end up like their fathers, but destined to turn out like them partly based on circumstance, and of a father who is terrified that his son will get crushed like he did when trying to pursue his athletic dreams.  But Troy also seems frightened by the prospect that Cory could surpass him, a fate which might be even worse in his mind.  These are some of the themes that make Fences such a fascinating piece to reflect upon, built around nuanced and multilayered characters who are brought to life through stunning performances.

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Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis) in Fences

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Fences Review By Erin Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, Fences follows African American father Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) raising his family in 1950s Pittsburgh.  Troy works as a sanitation worker, and has for years, after giving up his dream of playing baseball.  His troubled life has strongly influenced the way he raises his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and when Cory is on the cusp of being recruited by a college football team, Troy allows his own jealousy and belief that the world will not accept his son to try to force him to follow the same path as he did.

Washington’s performance here is an awards-worthy showcase.  The character of Troy is almost always talking – always telling stories, and tales of how life should be lived and the way the world is.  Playing his wife, Rose Maxson, is Viola Davis, also shining in one of the best roles of her illustrious career so far.  While the actual filming of Fences is very stage-play oriented, (almost the entire film takes place in only three locations), the performances grip you to the screen here.

Several of the showcase pieces take place in the small Maxson yard, where Troy has a baseball hanging from a tree that he uses for batting practice.  Denzel Washington’s use of the ball and bat during intense scenes adds to the tension.  These objects, this yard – and the fence Troy is building around it – are representative of the closed-in world he has created for himself and his family.  As Cory tries to challenge his father and break free to be his own person, and Rose tries to hold the family together, it is Troy we always watch.  A layered character, he is depressed, sometimes abusive, and set in his beliefs where everything he does is to try to protect those within his fences from the unforgiving outside world.

The film is over 2 hours, but it is a human drama that feels real, gritty, and always captivating as each character – none perfect – let us at the very least understand who they are, whether we relate to how they handle things or not.  Sure to be a major awards contender for the leading performances, Fences is deserving of the attention it has received.

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Cory (Jovan Adep) and Troy (Denzel Washington) in Fences

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Fences Review By Tony Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Fences is based on a 30 year old play by August Wilson, directed by and starring Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a very intense and flawed 1950s Pittsburgh sanitation worker.  He is resentful that following a hard childhood and years of incarceration for petty crimes he missed out on a pro baseball career. He takes out his anger on his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) and younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Other characters include an older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his mentally handicapped brother Gabriel (Mykelty Williamson), and his work partner and sounding board Bono (Stephen Henderson).

Given its origins, Fences is very dialogue-based with very little action and simple sets. Dominating practically every scene, Troy is a force of nature and it is challenging at times to keep up with his manic rants, especially in the authentic dialect of the period. The other cast members rise to his level, making Fences a very satisfying, if harrowing experience, like any good stage play.

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Consensus: With an outstanding cast led by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who both deliver some of their finest work, Fences brings August Wilson’s stage play to the screen in a film carried by dialogue that is gripping to watch unfold. ★★★★ (out of 4)

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