Oscar Bait. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, which refers to movies that transparently use trite ploys in an attempt to snag that iconic gold statue reserved for Hollywood’s best. As perfect example, look no further than a film like The Butler, which was shamelessly littered with a host of notable actors, from Robin Williams to Jane Fonda. While Fences also boasts a laudable cast, it is not to be mistaken as Oscar bait. Adapted from playwright August Wilson’s critically acclaimed play, it features actor/director Denzel Washington (The Magnificent Seven) in a starring role and behind the camera for the third time. The part is a familiar one for Washington – a reprisal of the Broadway turn that earned him a Tony. Perhaps it was his comfort in the role that resulted in a tour-de-force performance, one of the best of Washington’s career.
Fences is set in the 1950s, giving a glimpse into the small world of Troy Maxson, a hardworking family man who thanklessly toils away as a sanitation worker to provide for his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis, Suicide Squad) and their teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers). Troy’s simple, salt-of-the-earth nature belies a brash, booming personality that consumes any space he occupies. He is a constant source of joy and begrudging amusement for Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, Two for One), who also works on the garbage truck. Troy has an adult son Lyons from a previous marriage, and he and Rose care intermittently for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, The Purge: Election Year), who suffered a head injury during the War and became subsequently disabled. These players set the stage for the story and establish the foundation for Troy’s life.
Fences cannot be dissected thoroughly enough in this space, so I will just touch on the themes from the film that struck me as most memorable. When we first meet Troy it’s clear that he feels boxed in by life. He has frequent joy, but overall he feels frustrated and bitter about his current station, particularly when he ponders the lack of opportunity for growth at work or any prospect of financial prosperity. Home is a source of contentment because he loves his devoted wife, but home also represents the confining reality of missed opportunities. Sometimes life is a result of things you’ve made happen, and sometimes life seems like something that just happens to you whether you like it or not. Troy, who once had aspirations of playing baseball in the Negro leagues, is filled with bitterness and regret at the dreams that never came to fruition.
The better the film, the more I feel that I can write about it, so I’m forced here to give short shrift to many aspects of Fences that are worthy of further discussion, including the dynamic between father and son, selfishness and its resultant betrayal within a marriage, and the emotional, psychological underpinnings that give rise to it all. Ms. Davis has already won a Golden Globe for her performance, and she is in excellent company here. Washington seems to reserve his directing talents for only the richest African American stories (see Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and Fences continues that trend. This is a must-see for Denzel Washington fans, and doesn’t that include just about everyone? Grade: A.