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Fences (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 20, 2020


FENCES (2016)

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, John W. Iwanonkiw, Phil Nardozzi, Jeff Smith, Tra’Waan Coles, Benjamin Donlow, Mark Falvo and Malik Abdul Khaaliq.

Screenplay by August Wilson.

Directed by Denzel Washington.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  138 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle – a series of ten plays about black life in America during the 20th Century, with one play covering each decade – was one of the most ambitious and important theatrical accomplishments of our lifetime.  The late playwright received accolades (including multiple Tonys and two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama) for the cycle, which includes such plays as Fences, The Piano Lesson, Jitney, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Radio Golf, which did not have its Broadway run until a couple of years after Wilson died of liver cancer at the too-young age of 60 in 2005.

However, none of the plays has been made into a movie.  Until now.  (In fairness, The Piano Lesson was made into a TV movie in the 1990s.)

Fences, which is arguably the most well-known of the play in the cycle, has been a dream project for actor/director Denzel Washington for years now.  (Washington performed the play on Broadway in 2010 and had been a fan long before.)  It had actually been in various states of production for years before that.  Wilson had written the screenplay for the movie years ago, which Washington has used for this adaptation.  However, various attempts to film the play have fizzled out over the years: partially due to the fact that Wilson insisted on a black director for the film, partially due to the fact that Fences is a very theatrical story with some extremely difficult, bleak themes, all of which hardly screams out Hollywood escapism.

Now that Fences has made it to the big screen, it is hard to imagine what took so long.  It also makes one wish that the entire cycle will eventually be filmed.  (Washington has suggested that doing just that is a fantasy of his, but that would be a huge undertaking for just one filmmaker.)

Fences tells the 1950s story of Troy Maxson (director Washington also plays the lead role), a former Negro Leagues baseball phenom who was injured before the major leagues were integrated.  Now in his 50s and making a living as a garbage man in Pittsburgh, Maxson is an angry, cynical and rather selfish man.

Surrounding Maxson are his long-suffering wife Rose (the astonishing Viola Davis), his brother Gabe, who was brain damaged in the war (Mykelti Williamson), his long-time best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), his grown son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who is trying unsuccessfully to make it as a jazz musician, and his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo), a star football player who has the opportunity to become the star that Troy never became.

I won’t go into many of the details of what happens during Fences, because that is something best experienced fresh.  Besides, plotline is only part of the story here, for the real strength of Fences is the stunning street-poetic dialogue.

Needless to say the acting here is stellar – Davis won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Washington was also nominated for an Oscar, and Williamson, Henderson, Hornsby and Adepo are just as good as their co-stars in their complicated roles.

Fences is not an uplifting film, but it is a very important one.  It is tragic and messy in the ways that life can be, and yet there is transcendent beauty to be found in the rundown alleys and yards of Fences.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: March 14, 2017.

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