Verdict: Go see this movie. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both give the best performances of their career in this small and powerfully intimate film. You don’t want to miss this one.
Synopsis: “Denzel Washington directed and stars in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which centers on a black garbage collector named Troy Maxson in 1950s Pittsburgh. Bitter that baseball’s color barrier was only broken after his own heyday in the Negro Leagues, Maxson is prone to taking out his frustrations on his loved ones.”
The Good: Incredible performances by Washington and Davis, strong supporting cast, and unique camera work to promote a theatrical feeling
This feels like the kind of movie that was never going to go badly. Denzel Washington directs and stars in this adaptation of the play that he and Viola Davis won Tony Awards for previously. So, let’s be honest, this was always going to be good.
Washington and Davis are absolutely fantastic together. They have great chemistry, and I’m sure their previous experience playing these roles added to the feeling that they were really were married. It’s hard to believe while watching them that the actors haven’t been together for 18 years, like their characters.
Washington isn’t too different from his usual role, scary and intimidating through a quiet anger, punctuated by twinkle-eyed charm and laughter. It’s the same kind of character seen in Training Day or American Gangster. However, his role in Fences differs by being generally funnier and most importantly, deeply personal. That same anger and charm dichotomy is shown intimately, often through close-up shots that focus on his face, and then the immediate reactions of his targets.
As good as he is, Davis is the real star. She floats between motherly warmth, sharp criticism, and complete sadness with ease. She is a prisoner and a warden, a boss and a servant, all at the same time. Her performance is in her body language as much as it is her dialogue, showing Davis’ mastery over expression through silence and presence alone.
The other standouts are Stephen Henderson (Tower Heist) and Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers), both of which I hope to see much more of int he future.
As it is an adaptation of a play, the film takes on a very theatrical feeling, in both scope and camerawork. The camera is often stable, allowing the actors to move around and past it, and out then out of the scene, much as they would move on a stage. All but three scenes take place in or around a house, which allows it to take on life as a character of its own. The house and backyard, and how the characters move about those spaces, are as important as the characters themselves.
The Bad: One hiccup at the end in an otherwise near-flawless film
Not much to say here, the pacing, editing, acting, and direction is all good if not superb.
I only have two major complaints. First, there is one scene right toward the end of the film, an extremely pivotal scene for Washington’s character. In this scene, the lighting is distorted heavily, as is the lens used, with the intention to add a chaotic or disruptive feeling I believe. But it doesn’t quite stick and took me out of the moment.
Second, there are three scenes that take place outside of the house, with one them leading to the house. So the two that have truly no connection to the main setting, they are so jarringly different because of the change in setting that it again took me out of the film.
These are small things and do not detract from the film in a meaningful way.
The Ugly: None
Fences was written and directed by, and entirely starring POC. It’s a movie that about race relations and discrimination, but is also applicable to all/any families, regardless of background. Washington refused to make this film without a Black director, and the result shows: it feels more personal, more real, a story that has been lived and can, therefore, be told in an appropriate and meaningful way. One drawback: there are only two women in the whole film, which was likely also true of the play, but that means it fails Bechdel hard.