No matter how damaged or dysfunctional your family is, you find a way to make the most of it. Whether that means focusing on the positive, or actively confronting the negative, we take the hand we are dealt and play through. If you maintain a continuing dialogue with your friends or other relatives, the hope is that you are able to develop a perspective about life that isn’t jaded or too cynical. It isn’t a guarantee of mental success; but if you make a conscientious effort to seek out self-improvement, you’ll find that tranquility is the ability to face the good and the bad in everything without losing sight of either.
In Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged garbage man living in Pittsburgh around 1955. He works alongside his best friend Jim (Stephen Henderson) and shares a drink with him on more than one occasion. His wife Rose(Viola Davis) takes care of the house and also their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who is currently playing on his high school football team. Troy doesn’t believe a black man can make a career in sports and makes every effort to dissuade Cory of this path. Troy’s other son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is from a previous relationship when Troy was still a teenager. Lastly, there is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), an injured war veteran who has trouble processing simple sentences as he travels the streets on foot selling produce.
All of these people inhabit Troy’s world in one way or another and he welcomes any opportunity to wax philosophical about this and that with whoever will listen. While he has managed to maintain a pretty stable household, grievances that have gone unnoticed or unresolved begin to surface. Now Troy and Rose must work out their most challenging year together.
Fences is adapted from a play written by August Wilson and as such is driven by a sizable amount of dialogue. Also, you will notice most of the scenes take place in either the interior or exterior of the house, particularly in the backyard where Troy keeps a baseball dangling from a tree that he can swing at from time to time. There are moments where you can tell the scene is designed to keep characters present in order to have the conversation move forward. The story follows the tenuous relationship between Troy and his son Cory, but the focus is primarily on Troy and Rose and these are some of the most powerful scenes you will see all year. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were both previously in the play so their performances are remarkably intense and sincere.
I found myself unable to pull away from the screen, except when I felt the shame and disgrace of the characters. They feel so authentic that you take on their anguish as if it were your own. It’s not an easy thing to do, considering the subject matter, and it could have descended so easily into a melodrama; but the movie manages to find that balance between a distressful tragedy and a compelling, emotional story.
Fences is not your typical film experience in that it doesn’t rely on spectacle or have a clean resolution to its characters. It’s actually a great example of life being full of consequences and compromises. When Troy and his family face both, you witness a battle of words that can’t be contained and nor should it. It’s not about how great you have it or how bad you had it, but where you go from there. Do you let the sins of the past be your legacy or do you recognize your shortcomings and evolve? We’re not meant to admire Troy Maxson. He’s done some terrible things, but he ignores them and hangs his hat on what he’s done right up until now. It’s difficult to imagine how we would respond in that situation. I see many people discussing this film hours after leaving the theater.
I would put this film high on my list for best of the year. The performances, specifically Davis and Washington, are some of the most engaging to date. The script is top notch and the set design is brilliant and inviting. If I had to nitpick on anything, some of the scenes could have been shortened. At 138 minutes it starts to feel stagnant, but it eventually picks back up. Another standout performance is Mykelti Williamson, who plays Gabriel. His charm and levity helps the film breathe between intense moments, allowing us to relax before the next confrontation. The entire cast is fantastic and worthy of any and all accolades that come their way. It’s easy to assume that people who do bad things are bad people, but this film, and the play it’s based on shows us that we can either be defined by our mistakes or learn from them and improve. In other words, live and let live.
Synopsis: An African-American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.
Director: Denzel Washington
Writers: August Wilson
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby
Runtime: 2 Hours, 18 Minutes