Fences (2016)

Director: Denzel Washington
Writers: August Wilson (screenplay by), August Wilson (based upon his play)
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson

Troy Maxson (an energetic Washington) makes a living working for the city along with his best friend Bono (Henderson) and lives a simple life with his long suffering wife Rose (Davis). An apparent baseball prodigy, Troy is obviously still bitter about his career as he was deemed too old for the professional leagues by the time they allowed black players into the game. Troy is a big man though and always has something to say on a subject which often leads to his wife and friend being pushed aside and into the shadows. A larger than life character indeed. This inevitably causes conflict with his son when he receives the opportunity to try out for a college football team.

This is a difficult film to review really as while I did enjoy it and it certainly did entertain, there are also a lot of things wrong with it. Adapted from the play by August Wilson, one of the biggest issues here I feel is that well, it’s just like watching a play rather than a film and it isn’t really adapted for the cinema medium. A rather long-winded play that probably has a certain length to justify the theater tickets, likewise the film, is overly long by twenty minutes at least. There’s a whole lot of hot air blown around from everything to Troy being the big ‘I am’ to racial issues and to more subtle issues of family dynamics. It really could have all been told in under sixty minutes if they had really wanted to.

Ok first things first. There is a lot of dialogue in this film, a lot. Now while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it comes at you so thick and fast at times that it is very easy to miss parts, or even just switch off altogether. Brilliantly done by Washington? Indeed, but too much. I’m sure it works great in the theater to a small number of people who you can involve with directly. Not here though unfortunately. There were times where I thought to myself ‘oh just shut the hell up will you’. This, along with other reasons can then start to turn you off the character of Troy. I am unsure whether as an audience we are/were intended or supposed to like the character or not (the writers intentions) and in all honesty your emotions do swing from one end of the spectrum to the other regarding him. Troy certainly divides opinions.

As a character at times you do admire him for his beliefs and how he sticks to something. At other times, well, you just think what an asshole and he really can be, even when telling a plain truth. He speaks words of fact often and with great conviction, but could probably have gone about it in a much better way. Does Washington deserve praise for his portrayal of this conflicted and outspoken character? He certainly does and I don’t think that is ever in question, though at times it does feel like the Denzel Washington stand up show.

For the rest of the cast, all play their parts very well though in reality they have very little to do. Everyone is secondary to Troy and Washington. Now I know Davis got her Oscar for best supporting actress, but she has very little to do really aside from two very important scenes. Admittedly, what she does do she does do incredibly well in a reserved and subtle role and she really is a fantastic actress. Stephen Henderson as Troy’s long-suffering friend is also outstanding from an always bankable and dependable actor. Special praise must go to Mykelti Williamson though for his portrayal of Gabriel. Personally for me he steals the film. All the rest of the supporting cast are top notch here too and Denzil certainly managed to get the most out of them.

With regards to direction yes this film is well directed and shot. Cinematography is also good but only in so much as camera placement and the use of lighting. In all honesty, those hailing Washington as some directorial genius need to tone down on the juice in my humble opinion. He really didn’t have a great deal to do given it is pretty much a straight up, scene for scene adaptation of the play, from someone who was genuinely talented in setting a scene and writing. And this comes back full circle to it being more akin to watching a play on a flat screen. This is not a movie, but a flat play. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have actually watched it live as it was always originally intended. Now that must have been powerful and an experience never to forget.

This is certainly not going to be a film for everyone but it is a powerful piece nonetheless. A gritty drama about a working class man who has more issues than he is perhaps willing to admit and also admit that he may never resolve some of those issues. A man who treats his family as property and does not want anyone doing better than he did himself in life. A strong character, humble at times, wise yet abusive with his words. A wonderfully acted film which really should not have been made. It takes more than good performances to make a great film. Tedious at times with a tendency to drag also before ripping you out of your seat with yet another Troy rant on what is wrong with the world and the people in it.

Some people build fences to keep people out – and other people build fences to keep people in. It’s a line in the film and also the tag-line of the production. Both parts of that are correct and in context for this film. Perhaps August Williams should also have put a fence up around his play so it wouldn’t be meddled with later in time. A good film indeed, if for no other than the performances of those involved, though go into it knowing what it really is.

The Sage’s Rating:
Three & Half star

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