The movie Fences is built upon the strong foundation provided by a superlative cast of Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, and Mykelti Williamson
In playwright August Wilson’s Broadway play turned film, Fences, it is Pittsburgh, Pa in the 1950s. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged, former Negro League baseball player who now drives a garbage truck. He bears the scars of his career disappointments and the damage from being a black man in America during that time. His wife, Rose, (Viola Davis) conjures up an image of the line from the Spinners song Sadie “Sweeter than cotton candy, stronger than papa’s brandy.” She keeps the house as well as the peace between her and Troy’s son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who wants to play football. Troy opposes athletics for his son. Cory thinks his dad is afraid he’ll prove to be the better athlete. The truth is Troy believes his son will be denied a fair chance to compete and end up disappointed. Troy also deals with his WWII injured brother, Gabriel’s (Mykelti Williamson) permanent mental and physical limitations as well as guilt over how he handled his brother’s settlement payment from the federal government.
There’s a lot going on in Fences. The movie, Fences, is built upon the strong foundation provided by a superlative cast. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, to use a baseball analogy, knock the ball out of the park. Together they provide the forceful screen presence that this drama had to have. Denzel Washington also directed the film. Jovan Adepo is angry, intense, and confrontational which makes his character, Cory, absolutely credible. But the true unsung hero of Fences is Mykelti Williamson. As compelling as the other performances are, Williamson more than met the challenge of playing a severely handicapped individual.
This film also captures the essence of working class family disputes where mothers embrace their children’s career dreams, while fathers in their own loving way, want kids to be practical. While dreams are nice, dads think their kids should devote their energies to activities which will help them earn a living.
For these reasons, Fences is a See It!
On the other hand, the dialogue is very wordy, long sentences and soliloquies by the characters. Effective scriptwriting allows the viewers to understand past events from bits and pieces of discourse throughout the film. However, in a lengthy kitchen discussion, Troy and Rose lay out all the details surrounding Gabriel’s war injury. Then they go through the intervening developments before bringing the situation up to date. Viewers are now fully informed. However, in a real-world exchange, there would be no need to rehash facts well-known to both but instead they would address only the most recent issues and maybe cite the past to support a current point of view.
Additionally, as I began to digest this film, I wondered why August Wilson felt it necessary to write a story which encapsulates the worst stereotypes, criminal and immoral behavior for his characters. While I won’t discuss them all, two are worth mentioning.
At one point, when talking to a friend, Troy relates how as a young teen, his father catches him being intimate with a 13-year-old girl. His father begins beating him. Not for what he is doing but so that his father could have a turn with the girl! Is this really how a father would respond? Maybe in a small percentage of cases, but this is not the norm.
Rose shares with Troy how she grew up with siblings in which all are halves, no two with the same mother and father. That might be a tale a character could tell today but based upon the time period of this story, Rose would have been born in the early 1900s. Black families were much more intact then than today. Census figures from that time show that the vast majority of black babies born in the early 1900s were born to mothers and fathers who were married!
Then there’s the N word. It’s actually the first word Troy utters and there’s no shortage of the slur throughout the rest of movie.
August Wilson, an interracial African-American, his father was German, seemed to be willing to stretch credibility to taint these characters. Maybe he thought it made them more interesting. While I recommend Fences, we need more true stories like Hidden Figures and less made up ones like Fences.
Fences is 140 minutes and rated PG-13 for its thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references.