Playing Catch-Up: Fences (dir by Denzel Washington)


Well, 2016 is officially over and soon, it will be time for me to start posting my picks for the best of the year!  I’ve still got a lot of movies that I need to review (and, in some cases, watch) before making out that last so let’s not waste any time!  It’s time to start playing catch up!

fences

In Fences, Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson.  When the film begins, Troy is 51 years old and lives in Philadelphia in the 1950s.  He’s a proud, charming, and often angry man.  He’s the type of man who can tell a wonderful story and who can make you laugh but, at the same time, you’re always aware that he could explode at any minute.  It’s hard not to like Troy Maxson but, at times, it’s hard not to be a little scared of him.

Troy is a garbage man, apparently destined to spend the rest of his working life hanging onto the back of a garbage truck because his union does not allow black to drive the trucks.  Troy has recently complained about the lack of black drivers and, as he tells his best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), he’s now expecting to be disciplined.  However, to his great surprise, he is instead reassigned to be a driver, making him the first black man to work as a driver for the Philadelphia Sanitation Department.

And that may not seem like much today but, as the film makes clear, that was a huge deal in the 1950s.

Troy, of course, didn’t grow up wanting to be a garbage man.  As he tells his son, Troy left home when he was just a teenager and made his living as a mugger.  During one robbery, he accidentally killed a man and spent the next decade in prison.  It was in prison that he first met and befriended Bono.  It was also in prison that Troy discovered that he was a pretty good baseball player.  Upon his release, he played for the Negro League.  Though everyone agrees that Troy was a good player (and Troy is always quick to claim that he was the best), he never played for the Major Leagues.  The film suggests that, after the league was integrated, Troy tried out but was rejected.  His wife, Rose (Viola Davis), says that Troy was rejected because, at the age of 40, he was too old.  Troy says it was because of the color of his skin.

As I said, it’s hard not to admire Troy.  He’s a man who stands up for himself and he seems to sincerely love his wife.  When his oldest son, a musician named Lyons (Russell Hornsby), comes by to ask for money, it’s hard not to laugh with and appreciate the style with which Troy shows his irritation.  Troy is so charming that, it’s only after Lyons leaves, that you realize that Lyons practically begged his father to come see him play and Troy pretty much blew him off.

And then there’s Troy’s youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo).  Cory is in high school.  He’s a football player and he’s recently been scouted by a college.  Troy tells Cory that he’s wasting his time and that no black man will ever be given a fair chance in the NFL.  He tells Cory that he needs to get a real job, like he did.  And as Troy continues to yell at Cory, you start to understand Troy’s jealousy.  Cory has an opportunity that Troy will never have, not due to any difference in talent as much as to the fact that Troy grew up at a time when segregation was the unquestioned law of the land whereas Cory is coming of age the beginning of the civil rights era.

At one point, Cory asks his father, “Why don’t you like me?”

“I don’t have to like you,” Troy replies and the words sting.

Troy is a character about whom you’ll have mixed feelings.  Beyond his anger at his son, he’s also exploiting his mentally impaired brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson).  Gabe has a metal plate in his head, the result of his service in World War II.  Gabe receives a monthly disability check and Troy has been using that money to support his family.

Through it all, Rose remains by his side, listening to him when he’s angry and, whenever she can get a word in, acting as his conscience.  But then, Bono asks Troy about his relationship with Alberta, the new girl at work and Troy confesses what the audience suspected.  Not only is Troy cheating on his wife but Alberta is pregnant….

Troy is a great character and Denzel Washington gives perhaps his best film performance in the role.  (Washington already played the role on stage.)  In many ways, Troy is a monster but, at the same time, it’s impossible not to feel for him.  His anger is real.  His selfishness is all too real.  But his pain and his (legitimate) frustrations are very real, as well.  Troy Maxson is a character who, like everyone, struggles to maintain his balance as he walks the line between right and wrong.  He makes several mistakes but he’s never less than fascinating and Washington’s volcanic performance is never less than enthralling.  Matching Washington every step of the way is Viola Davis, giving a powerful performance as the loyal but outspoken Rose.

In fact, the entire film is a master class of great acting.  (If Mykelti Williamson occasionally goes a bit overboard as Gabe, that has more to do with the character than the performer.)  Though the film is dominated by Washington and Davis, I think special mention has to be made of Stephen McKinley Henderson, who brings a lot of understated wisdom to the role of Bono.

Denzel Washington also directed Fences and, unfortunately, he’s not as good a director as he is an actor.  While he goes get brilliant performances from his cast, Fences never really breaks free from its theatrical origins.  It’s very much a filmed play as opposed to a cinematic work of art and, the few scenes that attempt to “open up” the play feel somewhat awkward.  In the end, Fences is best as a record of incredible acting.