This movie has been on my radar for some time now. When I watched the intense first trailer I said, “yes, this is the Denzel I want to see.” Not the retired assassin or the grizzled cowboy with a cool mustache, but an everyday man, dealing with everyday struggles. Denzel is The Greatest Actor Ever and I was excited to see him show off in a simple drama. Less plot and more dialogue, more monologues and less action. Fences is a film based on the award-winning play by August Wilson. The initial run on Broadway starred James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. More recently, there has been a live production starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. So, they’ve lived in these roles for some time now and are very familiar.
This movie feels like a stage production. There isn’t much happening here in terms of movement and action. Characters talk constantly, walk from room to room, hit their mark and deliver their lines. This would be boring if the performances were dull, or the source material wasn’t so rich. Luckily, we’re dealing with a dense piece of realistic fiction, and a cast of actors at their absolute best.
Fences revolves around a black, working-class family in Pittsburg in the 1950s. Troy, played by Denzel Washington, lives with his wife Rose and son Cory, played by Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo, respectively. We meet this family at a crossroads. Troy is facing a promotion at work, and Cory potentially being recruited by a college football coach. I don’t want to reveal too much assuming you haven’t read the play already. Again, there isn’t much action. There is a lot of standing around and talking, but the conversations are so loaded. We learn so much about characters, their histories and their relationships through dialogue. Troy is a man with a difficult past and struggles with manhood and fatherhood. Rose, is a strong black woman, in a way that unpacks and explores the stereotype. Mykelti Williamson has a stand out performance in the little screen time he has as Gabriel.
In a movie full of all-star performances, Viola Davis is the MVP. Rose is the backbone of this family. Wearing that pressure and responsibility with a smile and sarcastic remark. We see the peak of Davis’ abilities in one powerful scene that’s the catalyst of the entire movie. Her nuanced performance anchors the film so that others (specifically Denzel) can shoot for the stars with bigger, louder performances. Speaking of Denzel, he does a fine job directing this stage play brought to life. He knows where to place the camera to allow necessary space for the cast to perform. In his performance, he’s amazing… as usual. As I mentioned earlier, his role is very showy. He’s giving the long, dramatic monologues, he’s dancing, singing and cracking jokes. While Viola makes her presence felt with small touches, Denzel stomps across each scene the way the character was written (I’m assuming). The performances complement one another perfectly and their chemistry is palpable.
Race, class, gender norms and generational divides are just some of the themes explored in this “movie”. I put movie in quotes because this is much more like a filmed play. The conversations drive the plot forward and the performances are both big and small to convey certain messages and evoke certain emotions. I was nearly brought to tears at the end and that’s a testiment to this story and these actors.. Watch this movie if you can. Viola Davis delivers the best performance I’ve seen this year.