Lost in the holiday movie season is the stellar film Fences. This film is based on the August Wilson play of the same name and stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. This isn’t the first time Washington and Davis have tackled this source material, both won Tony awards in 2010 for starring in the Broadway revival. What was fascinating is that even though this narrative stems from an award-winning play, it never feels like we are watching something meant for the stage. Davis and Washington bring a vibrancy and raw emotion to the film that it seems more like we are privy to these intimate moments in their life rather than watching a two-hour film.
Fences takes place in Pittsburgh during the 1950’s. The story centers around Troy (Washington) a man in his mid 50’s who works for the sanitation department. His wife, Rose (Davis) is still devoted to Troy after all of these years (even after he begins to alienate her after they are together). Troy longs for the past when he had a promising career in the Negro Baseball League. Now all he does is spin story after story about how he could have been much more had he been given a shot. Rose still is in love with Troy but realizes that their relationship today is on shaky ground as opposed to where it may have been in the past.
The story of this film won’t be either the acting or the prowess that Denzel Washington shows as a director (more on that in a little bit), it’s going to be the performance of Viola Davis. Davis’s portrayal of Rose is nothing short of astonishing. She can take the rich dialogue of this narrative and understand in such profound and efficient way that it made me wonder had she dealt with similar issues in her life. Had someone slept around on her the way Troy does in the film? Could someone had devalued who she was a person? Either way, Davis’s portrayal transcends anything else that’s great about this movie. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where she becomes the 2nd actor to win an Academy Award and a Tony for portraying the same role.
While Washington delivers yet another excellent performance, what stood out to me was how gifted of a director he was. He showed great prowess for staging the film in such a way that had the intimacy of a stage play, yet none of the characters feel confined. The dialogue is rich, and that should come as no shock as the screenplay was written by Wilson himself before his death in 2005. Washington doesn’t complicate matters as he knows the real star of the film, the words utter by these characters. This marks the third time he has sat in the director chair but is the first time he’s shown he belongs. Perhaps being in the Broadway play helped him prepare to direct the film, but his decision-making in this movie shows such a level of mastery that he’s sure to receive the attention of voters in the Academy.
Thematically, Fences runs the gambit. While it certainly touches on the importance of family and the damage that your actions can inflict on loved ones, I was intrigued by the ongoing metaphor surrounding the Fence itself. In the film (and the play as well), Rose has been on Troy for years to finish building that fence around their yard, and he just keeps putting it off and putting it off till finally, he gets Cory (his son played by Jovan Adepo) to help him out. The fence in the film is symbolic in many ways. Rose mentions wanting a fence to keep everyone she loves safe and in the house. She also puts a figurative fence around her heart as Troy repeatedly breaks on a weekly basis. Troy’s whole life has operated behind a fence, and it’s only when finally get a peak behind it that we truly see the man he’s become.