2hrs 18mins | Rated PG | for coarse language and sexual references
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson
For a film adaptation of a play (a difficult genre to bring successfully to the screen), Fences comes with a fair degree of heft.
Denzel Washington directs and also takes the starring role against the similarly Oscar-nominated Viola Davis, while the playwright, August Wilson, has been posthumously nominated for February's awards ceremony. And all with very good reason.
Fences is the story of an African-American man's experience of life in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Employed to ride the back of a rubbish truck, Troy Maxson rails against the injustice of his employer only allowing white drivers, but it turns out his bigger conflicts rest at home with his loving wife (the incomparable Davis) and two sons whose dreams are bigger than those Troy ever managed.
Troy is the working man who wants his boys to be like him, while at the same time not end up like him. He enjoys a pint of whiskey and good-natured rants with his old prison buddy each Friday, and constantly evokes his almost-success on the baseball pitch decades prior. We rapidly realise this is the measure of Troy's life and he's stuck with it.
It's important to acknowledge this script was written for the stage, as it feels very talky to start with and initially a little exhausting with its relentless anecdotes and monologues. However, in keeping with a theatrical feel, long tracking shots do a brilliant job of maintaining our focus on the actors and their words without cinema's traditional close-ups and reaction shots, and this is particularly impressive during the film's several big moments as Troy, Rose, and sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby from TV's Grimm) and Corey (Jovan Adepo) bash up against one another's expectations and disappointments.
While all the actors are superb (and Mykelti Williamson particularly impressive as Troy's disabled brother Gabriel), it is Davis who steals all her scenes, from flashing her eyes as she halts her husband's complaining, to snotting and sobbing through one particularly gut-wrenching revelation. Whether you agree that awards are indicative of talent or not, Davis (The Help, Doubt) is consistently someone to write home about.
This is Washington's third directorial outing, and both previous films (The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher) were based on true stories of perseverance against the odds, deeply situated in the African-American experience just as Fences is.
Troy's 1950s' take on life is that "You're born with two strikes on you when you're at the plate", and for all his caterwauling about equal opportunity he doesn't believe Whites will ever treat them right.
But his low expectations make Troy his own worst enemy, while his interpersonal conflicts render him a recognisably sympathetic figure.
It is this perceptive portrait of human complexity, impeccably acted by its small cast, that makes Fences as much a tale for today as its segregated past.
Sunday Star Times
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