By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
In a year where it seems that advances in race relations have made a complete 180, films like Fences and Moonlight are more important than ever. From a non-African-American perspective, it can be easy to point fingers and make accusations judging Black America for some of the things that have happened. On one hand, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be held accountable for bad behavior, whether criminal or not, but a non-Black American will never truly know and feel exactly what a Black person experiences day-to-day or what they have experienced through a history of abuse, mistreatment and prejudice. Denzel Washington’s latest film, Fences, offers audiences a glimpse into the life of working class African-Americans during the 1950s and how their lives continue to be shaped by a history of racism, right before the civil rights movement happened.
Washington stars as Troy Maxon, a fifty three-year-old trash collector struggling to provide for his family. Troy lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy has a strong work ethic, reporting to his job daily, but also has a gregarious personality. He enjoys sharing drinks with his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) and hanging out with his other regular visitors which include his son from another marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who suffered a major head injury during the war. During his younger years, Troy played baseball for the Negro League where he experienced racism first hand. He continues to experience that prejudice every day while on the job. These terrible experiences in his life, along with his personal ideals regarding working and providing for his family shapes the way he raises his youngest son Cory who, to Troy’s disapproval, wants to play high school football for the opportunity to attend college.
With a screenplay written by the late August Wilson (based on Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play), Denzel Washington not only stars, but also directs this excellent portrait of urban Black America during the 1950s. With mostly limited camera movement by cinematographer Charlotte Bruss Christensen, some long takes, and superb editing by Hughes Winborne, Washington maintains a simple theatrical look to the film with seemingly very few cinematic tricks. The film does have the appearance of taking place in the real world in real settings; however, most of the scenes rely on the dialogues, monologues, and the strong performances of the cast members to drive the story. The transitional moments between the main scenes are about as cinematic as the movie gets. Based on my rating of the film, it is pretty obvious that I have no complaints about this presentation. Because the movie’s source is a play, it works wonderfully here and allows the amazing cast to truly shine.
August Wilson’s script is superbly written with exceptionally developed characters who feel like real people that existed during the film’s era. These are real people with all of their charms, flaws, weaknesses and poor decisions. The cast bringing the characters to life are truly extraordinary and without a doubt deserve plenty of attention during the awards season. It should come as no surprise that Denzel delivers an excellent turn as Troy Maxon, a character who, at is best, is charming, passionate, charismatic, but is downright hateful when he is at his worst. Viola Davis delivers an award-deserving performance as Troy’s dutiful wife, a woman who often gets tested by Troy’s flaws, weaknesses and bad decisions, but is too devoted to her husband to ever completely give him up. Mykelti Williamson also offers a tremendous performance as Troy’s sweet brother Gabriel, a grown man who gets left mentally disabled due to his injury. The movie also features outstanding work by Jovan Adepo, Russel Hornsby, and Stephen Henderson.
For those who adore the theater plays, this is one movie not to miss. After watching this amazing film, I can’t help, but compare it to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but from a Black-American perspective. Make no mistake, though, this film is not a clone, but its own story that stands tall all on its own. Denzel Washington has already proved himself as an extraordinary acting talent, but had yet to direct a movie as exceptional as this one. With Fences, Denzel has finally created a movie that proves he is equally as talented as a filmmaker. And with a year of poor race relations coming to an end and a new year quickly approaching, this film could not have come at a better time.