Monday, February 6, 2017

Films of 2016: "Fences"


Fences began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by August Wilson in 1983, and featured James Earl Jones and Mary Alice as the original leads. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a 2010 revival and won Tonys for their performances as a married couple in 1950s Pittsburgh, and they reprise their respective roles in the feature film version (which Washington also directed, from a screenplay Wilson wrote prior to his death in 2005).

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation engineer and former baseball player who was rejected from the Major Leagues (apparently for his age) in an era of racial tensions that seem to have affected his worldview and his way of dealing with the world, including expectations and judgments regarding sports, work, economics, ethics, and family. His relationships include those with his sons Lyons (a musician) and Cory (an aspiring football player), his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his friend and coworker Bono, and his handicapped brother Gabriel (who suffered brain damage following the war).

Jovan Adepo and Denzel Washington
"Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in."

The symbolism of the fence Troy builds around his yard is the thematic representation of his worldview. It particularly affects how he holds his son back from his sports aspirations ("I don't want Cory to be like me, I want him to get as far away from my life as possible") and how he keeps everybody at a certain distance. His relationship with Rose gets tested particularly during a shocking revelation ("It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years."), to which she feels disappointed that she can't live up to the expectations of others, nor that she could be all that she could have been. The times may be changing, as Bob Dylan famously sang, but some things and/or people obviously don't. (Rather, they choose not to.) Furthermore, Troy even challenges death against what he tries to keep out or keep in the walls he builds or intends to build around his home and specifically around himself.

From a filmmaking and thematic standpoint, Wilson's dialogue is rapid and sharp, Washington's direction is crisp and intense (and very much recreates and recalls the thrill of seeing a stage play on screen), and the acting speaks for itself. From the opening scene, Washington is thoroughly phenomenal--and, at times, menacing. Davis arguably takes her time, but once she opens up (in a moment truly deserving of an Oscar nomination), she's incredibly engrossing and heartbreaking.

Viola Davis
More importantly, Fences is a cautionary morality tale--a character-driven, emotion-driven, and relationship-driven one, at that--that showcases the consequences of "the sins of the father" and the cost it amounts towards those near or dear to him. It is, perhaps, this theme that make it the year's most riveting and provocative film.

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