Stephen Henderson - Denzel Washington - Jovan Adepo
(PG-13 – 2 hr. 19 min.- Drama – Director: Denzel Washington – Writer: August Wilson – Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson)
Plot: In a nutshell, “Fences” is about a working-class family in Pittsburgh, PA. during the 1950s. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), the patriarch, is a garbage man who had, years earlier, missed out on a career in Major League Baseball due to age and ethnicity. He has a wife (Viola Davis), a child (Jovan Adepo), and best friend (Stephen Henderson) who he spends the ensuing years imposing himself upon.
Despite all the hype and praise that surrounds Fences, I left the theater underwhelmed and bored. Based on August Wilson’s 1983 play of the same name, the story trips and plods along with little actual plot driving it.
Denzel Washington was nominated in the “Best Actor” categories for both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award. (He was bested by Casey Affleck at the Golden Globes. The Oscars take place on February 11, 2017.) I just don’t see him snagging an Oscar for this interpretation of the character. At this stage in his career, I think we all know what a “Denzel” performance looks and sounds like. With little exception, this is what he delivered on the screen. No chances were taken. No muscles were stretched.
Additionally, Washington wasn’t nominated in either “Best Director” category. Keeping the original stage constructs in mind, a preponderance of the picture takes place in the shabby backyard of Maxson’s home. This was not a difficult to shoot, nor was it inventive. Washington’s sole challenge was instigating strong performances from the cast. (I will discuss them momentarily.)
And while I realize that it is the very definition of a melodrama, Wilson’s script is so unflinchingly grim that I left the theater feeling…hollow.
Viola Davis is absolute money in Fences. She is charismatic and talented. Her performance as a devoted, yet disregarded, wife is visceral and powerful. While difficult to qualify, it is clear that her soul is much older than the mere 51 years she has spent among us.
Stephen Henderson is equally terrific as Jim Bono, Maxson’s co-worker and de facto conscious. Like Ms. Davis, he just has “something” about him. He seems like he would be the coolest uncle in the world…and that translates to the screen.
The next day…
I completed the body of this review yesterday. Last night I was trading texts with a close friend and fellow critic. I asked him his opinion of the film. (He likes it much better than I do.) However, the discussion soon segued into one about infidelity, a key plot point in the picture. It made me realize that this is where Wilson’s script was perhaps more effective than I initially gave him credit. The way the film deals with adultery and the unflinching manner that the story is resolved is gristley and unexpected. It lead us to an extended conversation about personal issues that we have both experienced. It made me realize that this is where the film succeeds; it is a catalyst for conversation.
Do I still think it is about 20 minutes too long? Yes. Would I like a bit more meat on the bone in regards to the plot? Yep. Am I sick of Denzel’s one-note schtick? Yessir. But have I modified my view about the film? Reluctantly, I have. Any piece of art that results in genuine, thoughtful conversation does indeed have some merit.