By Jim Tortolano
One of the many things to like about Denzel Washington is his willingness to take on roles in which he is the bad guy, or at least something short of a cinematic saint. He’s been a bent cop in “Training Day,” a drunken airline pilot in “Flight” and an American gangster in “American Gangster.”
As his career arcs away from leading man roles – he’s in his sixties – he’s made some sad choices in jobs he’s taken. Films such as “Eli” and “Magnificent Seven” may have added to his bank account, but not to the luster of his Oscar-winning career.
These and other causes are reasons to be very happy with “Fences,” a drama set in the Fifties and early Sixties about a man, his wife and family caught up in a rapidly changing world.
Washington directed and starred in this film based on the play written by August Wilson, who also did the screenplay. He portrays Troy Maxson, a one-time baseball phenom whose life course now has him working as a trash man along with his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
Maxson’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis) is by turns, annoyed and fascinated by Troy’s soliloquies about life, the devil and the importance of self-reliance. The chief conflict comes between Troy and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose own dreams of athletic glory keep getting short-circuited by Troy’s insistence that learning a trade is more important.
This is a play turned into a film, which isn’t always easy. There’s a lot of talking and not much action, but the script/screenplay are so thoughtfully written and the lines delivered with such nuance and carefully calibrated emotion – although they seem spontaneous – that you don’t mind the absence of spaceships, gun battles or singing and dancing.
Set in Pittsburgh, the emphasis of the life struggles here is not so much racial bias – this isn’t the Jim Crow South – as it is with how much to past can be a dead weight on the present and the future, and that by spending too much effort looking backward you cannot see the way ahead.
All the performances are excellent, including not just the major leads, but also Mykelti Williamson (Troy’s war-addled brother Gabe) and Russell Hornsby (Lyon’s Maxson, Troy’s jazz-playing son from an earlier marriage.
The settings feel authentic and gritty, although the smokestacks always looming in the background might be a bit overdone.
“Fences” is an excellent piece of cinematic art, which nevertheless should appeal to a broad audience for its insights into human character. It should also appeal to people who want to again see what a fine actor Denzel Washington was, and is.
“Fences” is rated PG-13 for strong language, smoking, drinking and brief scenes of violence.
Categories: Arts & Leisure