‘Fences’ a disturbing, honest family drama

Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Steven James
@StevenLeeJames

Fences is a disturbing movie about a dysfunctional family that, in some ways, probably acts a lot like your family. You cringe while these characters argue and feel thrilled when they resolve their issues.

When Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directs and produces) was a teenager, he killed a man. While in prison, Troy learned he was talented at baseball, and became a top player in the professional Negro Leagues. He failed to earn a spot in the Major League at the age of 40 — he blames this failure on race, but it’s clear no MLB team would want a 40-year-old rookie regardless of that. Maxson’s need to blame everything on race affects his relationship with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and his sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo), especially when he tries to lecture them about responsibility. Rose struggles to keep the family together, and Lyons and Cory fight to form their own identities, but can’t because of Troy’s dominance.

Most of the scenes in this movie are hard to sit through, but Washington intentionally makes it that way. You are watching a man act like a hypocrite to his wife, his sons and his brother, but he is also trying to do what he can to support them. It’s heart-wrenching and visceral.

The drama in this movie is heavy, but feels real. Nothing is forced. The movie doesn’t ask the audience to feel sorry for a character just because the script requires it. Troy acts old-fashioned for 1950s Pittsburgh, but isn’t too different from most fathers living today. He says he wants to build a fence to keep out the Grim Reaper, but it’s obvious he also wants to build a fence to keep his sons from coming back so they will be nothing like him, even with his perplexing lectures about them needing stop doing what they love so they can get real jobs.

Washington and Davis have already been nominated for Golden Globe awards, and the film is generating a lot of Oscar buzz. Awards ceremonies are hardly ever indications to how truly good a movie is — that, of course, depends on the actual filmmaking — but it’s easy to see why Fences is getting a lot of awards love.

Fences is based on a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by August Wilson, who also drafted the movie’s screenplay. At times, Fences feels like a play because of its static camera work and the lack of change in location. Most of the film takes place in either the Maxson household or outside in the backyard, but Washington and team are able to make it feel like a movie throughout the majority of its runtime with close-up shots and strong performances. This is Washington’s third directorial project, and he is starting to realize what makes a good camera shot and what makes a good scene.

Despite the static camera work, Washington gets great performances out of his actors, and every shot in this movie is well-composed.

Washington made a good movie, but kept it from being great because he allowed himself to be dragged down by the source material. His actors and the dialogue help keep the audience invested, but he fails to tell the story visually. There is nothing wrong with still, carefully composed shots if the lighting and colors are interesting, or if the subjects are fascinating to look at, but that is not always the case with Fences. The cinematography wasn’t bad, it was just mediocre.

However, Washington obviously knows how to bring out the best in actors. You can’t help but feel like you are sometimes watching a play, as opposed to a movie, but all of the performances are top-notch, and deserve every bit of recognition they get. The dialogue is exceptional, and because it is delivered by these specific actors, the movie’s unwillingness to push the boundaries of visual storytelling is only slightly bothersome.

The plot is good, but isn’t different from the play’s. Washington, who reprises the same role for which he won a Tony Award, is great as always. Hornsby and Adepo make their characters sympathetic, even if they are sometimes whiny and annoying. Mykelti Williamson, who plays Troy’s older brother, Gabriel, adds to the distress playing a mentally impaired World War II veteran who gets picked on by the local children, while also watching his family fall apart. Davis, who also reprises her same role for which she won a Tony Award, gives the best performance here. You can tell Rose isn’t happy in the marriage, but does what she can to keep her family members from hating one another. Her conflict worsens after Troy’s increasingly despicable behavior, and she goes from being a likeable character to the most beloved after she still gives him love he doesn’t deserve. You feel worse for her because of Davis’ portrayal, which will undoubtedly be nominated for every major supporting actress award.

After watching the way Troy treats his family, you’ll be glad the movie only looks and feels like real life, but actually isn’t.

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