Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Reel Review: FENCES

Adapting a stage play to film is never an easy task. Staying too true can make the film look like someone just pointed a camera at a play, and making too many changes can lose the original message of the production. Acclaimed late playwright August Wilson’s Fences tackles many issues from race relations to family dynamics, and bringing it to a successful screen adaptation meant finding a director who had a good hold on the material along with a passion for it. Say hello to Denzel Washington.

Troy Maxson (Washington), is a garbage-man in 1950’s Pittsburgh living in a segregated neighborhood. Angry and bitter over his missed opportunities in life, Troy takes his frustrations out on the closest relationships in his life, which includes his wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), best friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and his mentally challenged brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson).

The original version of FENCES was a strong look at African-American progression and race relations. Actor and director Denzel Washington, (who also starred in a recent stage-version of FENCES with his co-star Viola Davis), directs this version which had its script written by its original creator, August Wilson. Washington and Wilson strip away a lot of the politics (but not all), and focus on the characters, with the bulk of it all focusing on Troy, who is one of the most powerful characters ever put to screen. Once a former Negro Leagues ballplayer who now rides a garbage truck, Troy emerges as a blowhard with angry opinions and very tough love for his son. He’s an asshole and proud of it, but the more he goes on, the more about his background is revealed, and the path which brought him to this point. Once the blanks are filled it, there is an enormous amount of pity to felt for Troy, making him one hell of a character to love and hate at the same time.

The scenes between Troy and his son are explosive, and things take an even meatier turn when a late-film twist in which Troy admits a secret to his wife adds a whole new level of drama. The turn makes Rose the emotional beating heart of the film, and gives FENCES even more to work with as a family drama.

As a director, Washington doesn’t have to do a whole lot as the film is very much set up like its original stage-play. Most of the movie takes place in Troy’s backyard, living room, and dining room…and only occasionally explores elsewhere. It feels “stagey” as the camera is basically parked and characters fire away at each other using dialogue that people in real life never would. It takes a bit to get used to, but once the film finds its groove it’s mesmerizing.

But Washington’s real talent behind the camera seems to be in getting tremendous performances out of his cast. Viola Davis is amazing; showing extreme patience and strength in dealing with Troy’s opinionated bullshit and darn-near torment of his son. She has a few big moments in the film which are gut-punches. Young Jovan Adepo holds his own against Washington, and watching Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally unbalanced brother is tearjerking. But nothing compares to the massive powerhouse performance by Washington. It’s a larger-than-life character with many layers that he handles perfectly, and it’s difficult to take our eyes off him. The veteran actor literally changes into another person, and he is so captivating it’s easy to forget that this is the Denzel we thought we’ve known all these years.

FENCES has several big moments for each key character with all of them getting a few moments for an emotional speech or two. After a very emotional showdown between father and son, the film flash-forwards several years and then adds on another wallop of a scene. By the time the credits roll, Washington has delivered a powerful film which will have audiences talking in awe and disbelief; in awe over how something so simply shot could be so powerful, and disbelief over one actor and director’s performance.


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