“It’s hard for me to admit I’ve been standing in the same spot for eighteen years.”
As I wrap up the last of this year’s Best Picture nominations, I sit wondering if last year’s negativity towards the Academy with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has led to the disproportionate number of films this year based around race and racial tensions, or if the committee genuinely thinks these films are worth the nominations.
I mean, Hidden Figures is excellent, but it’s got such a flat, emotionless ending that it almost ruins the film. Loving is a great story, well acted, but is so formulaic that I’m forced to ask if it wasn’t for the fact that it was about what it’s about, would it have been nominated? But here we are, with Denzel Washington directing Denzel Washington in a film that perfectly encapsulates Denzel Washington.
A bin man in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, Troy Maxson (Washington) is a man trying to raise his family, all the while being bitter about the cards life dealt him. His failures in his past are not only holding him back, but they’re forcing him to hold back his long suffering wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).
Feeling like he’s been trodden on and kept down his whole life, Troy insists on pushing his life views onto his family even as they try desperately to move forwards and make their lives better. As life carries on around him, the old man has to come to terms with the fact that he has stood still for god knows how long as everyone and everything around him has moved on.
Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, and with a screenplay written by Wilson himself; Fences is set almost exclusively in Maxson’s back yard, which acts as a natural point for people to hang out and chat – much like your kitchen every time you’re forced to have people over. This central location gives us an interesting view on Maxson family life as time goes by; like a time-lapse photo of Denzel Washington being an asshole. And it works surprisingly well.
Washington’s bitter patriarch is a joy to watch, as any Washington character is. The man has made a career shaped in excellence with both his acting and directing and that’s continued with Fences. We are invited to watch this legendary actor seamlessly move between loving husband, jovial workmate and concerned dad. We get to watch him try his hardest to be good at all three roles, but not necessarily do a great job at any of them.
It’s an interesting look at a working husband’s life in this particular slice of time, no matter your views now, it’s no doubt mirroring the lives of so many from that time. If I had to pick a fault, it would simply be that while Denzel Washington is excellent, he has become the king of the angry monologue and that is pretty much his only move here. It really is a great move, but it’s nothing new. I was hoping for something a little more than the man’s greatest hits.
However, the stand out performance is Viola Davis as Rose, Troy’s wife of almost two decades. She brings such a spectacular performance that you can’t help but be in awe of her. Admittedly, I don’t know an awful lot of her work (aside from last year’s Suicide Squad) so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – outside of the fact she was already Oscar nominated by the time I got to the film – so I was more than pleasantly surprised when almost all of the emotional pull comes from her role. In this year of very racially charged Oscar-bait films, I was very impressed that her performance came more from her portrayal of an almost downtrodden woman, fighting for respect in her own house, than anything else. I can’t speak highly enough of her performance.
With an excellent rear guard consisting of usually excellent, but almost always ignored support actors, like Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson, Washington’s film has a near perfect cast to tell this story for him. Setting the film in a twenty square-foot garden doesn’t give the actor/director much opportunity to show off his cinematic chops, but somehow the man with only a few films under his belt has managed to make this both interesting and compelling. Which, considering the limits he has, is a small miracle.
Fences isn’t the best of the Oscar Season films, but it’s an excellent entry in 2017’s contender bracket. A film with a point – several points in fact – and a fascinating story certainly isn’t one to be ignored. I look forward to seeing more from Denzel’s directorial playbook in the future.