This would be the last film we would see in 2016, and I was really, really on the fence (ha!) about it. (We were actually planning to see Manchester by the Sea first, but it was sold out!) The trailers make it look like fairly typical, grim, end-of-year Oscar-bait. And in fairness, it is. But in more fairness, it’s a lot more than that.
Denzel Washington directs himself as the primary force, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s play Fences. This movie never shakes off its stage roots, which isn’t something that bugs us, but which some have criticized it for. One reviewer has said that the cinematic form isn’t exploited, and only serves to weaken the intensity of the original play, to which I say: Fine, it was plenty intense.
Troy is a garbage man, who rides with his pal on the back of the truck in 1956. He’s got some stress because he raised hell that black men weren’t allowed to drive the truck, only to haul the garbage. Troy’s got a bit of an issue on this subject, feeling robbed of a glorious sports career because coloreds weren’t allowed to play the majors back in the…I think it was the ’30s. But the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t let the characters rest on the (brutally unfair) treatment they got in a truly structurally unequal society. They are the architects of their own destiny for good and ill, and there’s no rest for the viewer who wants a simplifcation.
One is entirely inclined to side with Maxson, as a likable, larger-than-life character—at least at first. But he’s not great with his sons. But then, he’s a pretty stand-up guy in a lot of ways. But in a lot of ways, he’s not. And it goes on-and-on like this, down to a backstory that’s just brutal (though not atypical for many turn-of-the-century poor kids).
The Boy, who was gung ho about this on the way out said, “That was some [expletive deleted] acting!” And he’s right. This is an actor’s movie and it’s chock full of acting from end-to-end. Washington and Viola Davis make you feel for these characters to where they vanish as stars and become truly three-dimensional. When Denzel gives his heart-breaking speech—he’s done wrong, he’s gonna keep doing wrong because it’s all he’s got—it’ll rip your heart out. But Viola counters with her own speech that reverberates twice as hard, because wrong is wrong, no matter the circumstances.
The two of them carry the film, by-and-large, but not because the supporting actors are not also great. Stephen Henderson is Maxson’s wiser-than-he-might-seem co-worker. Russell Hornsby is the older son, a seemingly shiftless musician, while Jovan Adepo is the younger son. Both look for approval from Maxson, who’s got none to give. Saniyya Sidney is the picture of innocence and forgiveness. And if Mykelti Williamson’s performance doesn’t rip your guts out, we can’t be friends.
My only sense of the story’s weakness is that it doesn’t have what would traditionally be considered a main character. It’s clearly Maxson, in terms of screen time and struggle, but he never actually changes at any point. Ever. His character (realistically enough, mind you) doesn’t even admit he’s wrong, no matter how wrong he is. It could’ve been Cory (Adepo), the younger son whose final confrontation with Maxson should be the turning point for him as a character, but it’s not really—whether or not he sees the wisdom in his older brother’s final words is pretty up in the air.
But, no point in being slave to a formula. This movie delivers real and sympathetic characters and tons of unabashed drama in a way I don’t expect to be equaled this award season. If some serious statuettes aren’t handed out to this near masterpiece, I’ll begin to suspect the whole thing is, as we say in the closing days of 2016, “rigged”.