Review: Fences

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Directed by: Denzel Washington
Written by: August Wilson, based upon his play of the same name
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo

Summary: Through the eyes of Troy Maxson we see a black working mans’ desires, disappointments and ultimate self-destruction in 1950’s Pittsburgh. He laments for the life he felt he was cheated out of and watches as his family erodes due to the choices he made.

Fences was the first movie of 2016 I got excited about. Mid-summer I always pour through lists of the most anticipated movies of the fall and winter months and Fences was on just about every one of those lists – and with good reason – it’s a film with a very compelling story and some unforgettable performances.

Fences is a very good movie, but I bet it was an even better play. And that’s not exactly the feeling you aim for when you set out to adapt a stage play into a film.

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Seeing Fences in the theater felt like I was watching the stage play, not a movie. The play was critically acclaimed and award winning on Broadway, but there is a shift in tone and aesthetic that needs to happen when you adapt something from the stage and onto the screen and I did not see that in Fences. Much of the story takes place in one or two places; the backyard or the interior of the Maxsons’ home. These settings operate like set pieces, shifting back and forth as their characters make entrances and exits.

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The cinematography felt a little static as well. The camera would linger on a character for quite some time, allowing for the delivery of a powerful monolog or dramatic moment. I usually praise this persistence, I love when the camera forces you to confront an emotional moment on screen, daring you to look away (12 Years a Slave did this beautifully), but this combined with the screenplay just made it feel more and more like theater. I think Fences may have benefited from having a screenwriter and director that were not so closely tied to the stage production. An outsiders perspective may brought in even the smallest of tweaks with the potential to change the tone of the film.

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The best thing to come out of Fences will absolutely be Viola Davis’ Oscar. She is dominating the Best Supporting Actress race across the board and when Oscar nominees were announced this week she made history by being the first black woman to earn three Oscar nominations. Viola Davis’ performance as Rose Maxson is completely unapologetic. Rose is a crucial character and Viola Davis embodies all of her complexities and contradictions perfectly.  The role is a careful balancing act; Rose is still the obedient housewife of the 1950s but is unafraid to speak her mind or have a playful exchange of retorts with her husband.

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She is a woman that represents the plight of many at that time – with no realistic ability to live successfully as a single black woman in the 50s, she attached herself to a man and experienced his disappointments along with him, and in doing so she was supposed to let go of her own aspirations and dreams for the future. Viola Davis pulls this off with ease but isn’t afraid to bring grit and honesty to the performance.

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Denzel Washington was, of course, incredible. He always delivers a solid performance but he nailed this role. I never felt like I was watching Denzel Washington give an amazing performance, I was just watching Roy Maxson. It’s impressive when a big-name actor can pull that off. The rest of the ensemble, some of which are veterans from the stage show, shine in Fences as well. Even if they only end up on screen for a few minutes, these actors made an impression.

Final Verdict: B+
Walking away from Fences I find myself focusing on the stellar performances more than anything else. The film was teetering right on the edge of exceptionalism, but some vital flaws in the screenplay and direction held it back.


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Actor, Denzel Washington
Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis
Best Adapted Screenplay

Viola Davis is GETTING.THIS.OSCAR and she absolutely deserves it. I’m curious to know why she was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category rather than Best Actress? I think her screen time is sufficient to bill her as the lead actress and her character is obviously vital to the plot development. I’m a little disappointed to see this nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay given the flaws I detailed earlier.

Won…
Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis

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