By Darlene Donloe
Someone asked me what I thought of the new Paramount film, Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
I took a beat and thought about it carefully because I really wanted to give a heartfelt response. I really wanted to give the film, out Christmas Day, and its vibrant characters and involving story, an authentic observation.
I began by saying I loved it. I followed with Viola Davis being a breathtaking actress who gives all of herself and none of herself to her roles. I added how Denzel Washington engulfs his role and fills out the screen with this engaging portrayal of one of the American theater world’s most complicated characters ever – Troy Maxson. I continued with how Davis and Washington’s chemistry on stage and now on screen is palpable and how they meld into each other as they exchange refreshing and rapid banter. Their marriage of words and performance is unmatched.
Denzel Washington directed and stars in August Wilson’s Fences along with his fellow performers from the Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival.
The story, part of Wilson’s 10-play anthology, centers on the Maxson’s, an African American family in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Troy Maxson (Washington) is a garbage collector and a former baseball star who creates tension in his family when he squashes his son's (Jovan Adepo) dream of playing college football. He’s convinced his son will suffer the wrath of racism like he did when he tried to excel in sports.
Troy is a broken man in many ways – and a whole man in others. When we meet him he’s waxing lyrical about life and his world with is best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). As the story goes on pieces of Troy are unwrapped. He was an excellent ball player in the Negro Leagues, he was in prison, he’s very hard on his son and loves his wife, Rose (Davis).
Troy loves to talk. He’ll talk about anything – and then talk some more. He loves to talk about the time he wrestled three days and three nights with Death. He’s not afraid of Death. In fact, he invites Death to take its best shot. Choking his bat tighter, he looks death square in the eye and lets it know, he’s ready for it.
Washington reprises the role that was made famous by James Earl Jones in the original 1985 production. Laurence Fishburne has also taken on the heady role. But it’s Washington who has given the role breath in recent years. What he’s done with the role is exceptional. He made it his own. He’s delivered a vulnerable, funny, harsh, unrepentant and bitter – yet loving Troy Maxson.
Davis as Troy’s long-suffering wife, gives as good as she gets in the role. She, too is reprising the role she crushed on Broadway. Rose is the moral compass of the family. She’s the true rock, the gel that holds it together. And even when it looks like the boulder is about to crumble, Rose steps up with her powerful voice and constitution.
The entire cast delivers. Russell Hornsby is Lyons, Troy’s son by a previous marriage. Mykelti Williamson is Troy’s brother Gabriel, whose life was shattered by a head injury during World War II. Jovan Adepo is good as Troy’s son. Stephen McKinley Henderson makes it do what it do as Troy’s best friend, Bono. All given Bravo performances.
As the director, Washington has sculpted a film that feels like a theatrical production. The blocking, quite unique in its presentation, is like that of a filmed reading or a theatrical production. It works in some areas – is a bit shaky in others. But, overall, he has directed a full, satisfying movie.
August Wilson’s dialogue is like poetry. It flows. It speaks truth. It’s emotional. It’s nourishing. Washington’s directorial take enriches the story.
As the movie’s dialogue states, fences are built to keep some people out and to keep some people in. Whether you’re out or in, there is something to learn from this film. It’s a winner!
Fences is directed by and stars Denzel Washington. It’s written by August Wilson and stars Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Fences gets an E (excellent).