Diversity became one of the most talked about topics in show business following the #TheOscarSoWhite social media campaign. While Hollywood still has a long way to go, you could argue that studios are slowly starting to give us more diverse films. 2016 has been an especially strong year for African American ensemble pieces, from Moonlight, to The Birth of a Nation, to Hidden Figures. Ava DuVernay’s 13TH also stands out as one of 2016’s best documentaries, demonstrating that it was a great year for African American talent behind the camera too. Fences is yet another marvelous film with a black director and primarily black actors. Race and ethnicity aside, though, this is probably the most well acted picture you’ll see all year.
The film is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which first hit the scene in 1983. Although Wilson passed away in 2005, he finished the screenplay for this film adaptation before his death. The project finally got off the ground with Denzel Washington acting as a director. Washington has turned in a bold, powerful interpretation that does right by its source material. It’s sure to be a major Oscar contender with Wilson likely to receive a posthumous screenwriting nomination.
It’s sure to be a major Oscar contender with Wilson likely to receive a posthumous screenwriting nomination.
Washington not only directs, but also stars as Troy Maxson. A role Washington previously played on Broadway, Troy is a middle-aged husband and father struggling to get by in 1950s Pittsburgh. He had potential to be a baseball star during his prime, but Jackie Robinson hadn’t broken the color barrier yet. Troy tries to do right by his children, but frequently comes up short. His eldest son (Russell Hornsby) aspires to be a musician while his youngest son (Jovan Adepo) could score a college football scholarship. Troy doesn’t agree with their life choices, firmly believing that a black man can only make a living through manual labor. Every time Troy is given a chance to mend his relationship with his sons, he strikes out.
Washington delivers a raw performance as a man who’s easy to despise, but also identifiable. However, the film’s best performance comes from Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. A role that Davis also portrayed on Broadway, Rose is a fiercely loyal spouse who stands by her husband through thick and thin. She’s by no means a pushover, though. Through love, dedication, and subtly, Rose knows how to take control of almost any situation. She may let Troy think that he wears the pants in the family, but Rose is the one truly running the show. There’s a particularly effective sequence where Troy drops a bombshell on Rose. Davis exemplifies a wide array of feelings, from heartbreak, to resentment, to compassion, to triumph, never missing a single note.
Davis exemplifies a wide array of feelings, from heartbreak, to resentment, to compassion, to triumph, never missing a single note.
From a directorial standpoint, Fences isn’t the most epic or cinematic movie of the year. However, it’s not supposed to be. Washington wisely keeps his film small and intimate, but still overflowing with humanity. Although the film is clearly based on a play, you can still feel every emotion as if you’re watching these performers on a stage. Fences can only be described as a powerhouse of emotion, working so much passion under one roof.