When I walked up to the ticket booth at the movie theatre yesterday, I wasn’t sure if i would opt for Passengers, another futuristic space movie or Fences, a critically acclaimed drama adapted from a 1987 Pulitzer prize-winning play by August Wilson. I had my fill of space vehicles with Rogue One and opted to go for Fences. And I am very glad I did.
Denzel Washington directs and stars in this film adaptation of the Broadway play that won many awards when it was presented several years ago. James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader in the early Star Wars films won best actor Tony award for this role in 1987. It turns out that Denzel Washington and several others in the small cast were part of a short Broadway revival of the play in 2010. It showed. They knew the characters intimately. The play is set in the 1950’s in Philadelphia. Troy Maxson is a 60ish black sanitation worker who is unhappy, unsettled and not satisfied with his life now, or in the past. He is an African-American Willy Loman. His wife, played by Viola Davis, is a patient, stoical, supportive pragmatist who is, to a point, willing to overlook her husand’s shortcomings. Her portrayal of this character, Rose, was sensitive and emotional …no, it was gut-wrenching. She almost had me sobbing out loud. Bring kleenex.
Each character – the neighbour, the two sons, Rose, the handicapped brother and Troy – have scenes where they get to express themselves intimately. We learn why they are the way they are. There are a lot of words. But they all contribute to the picture and never once feel unnecessary. More than half the movie takes place in a small Philadelphia back yard. It gives the feeling that you are watching a play. Or more that you are just eavesdropping on this family as they struggle. Although we spend a lot of time in this back yard, the camera captures many points of view so it is never boring. And yes, Troy spends time building a fence around his yard and also, it turns out, around himself.
The film is loaded with symbolism – fence-building, baseball, gardens, flowers, Fridays, Gabriel, the Blues, garbage. And there is lots of talk about Death – compared to “a fast-ball on the outside corner”. I will want to see the film again after a bit of a break to take all these references in.
For the last couple of years, the Academy Awards have been criticized for not acknowledging people of color. This year, with Birth of a Nation, Loving, and Fences there will be no lack of accolades for African American film-makers and actors. And if Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are not at the top of the list, I will be shocked. For my money, Viola Davis gave the female actor performance of film in 2016, hands down.
The movie is emotionally draining and because it is so intense it may feel about fifteen minutes too long – but I don’t know what you could cut. I highly recommend Fencesas a fine, intense piece of theatre/film. 4.5 out of 5