Before we can dive into how wonderful this film is, I want to give a little backstory on how it came to be. Fences was a stage play written by August Wilson in the early 1980’s. It debuted on Broadway in 1987, and ended up winning the Tony Award for Best Play that year. In 2010, esteemed Broadway director Kenny Leon directed a revival of the stage play starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles, and Mykelti Williamson, Russel Hornsby, and Stephen Henderon in supporting roles. Both Denzel and Viola took home a Tony for Best Actor and Actress, respectively, and the play itself won the Tony for Best Revival.
Sometime in the 2000’s, August Wilson adapted his play into a film script that sat on the shelves for quite some time. Wilson died in in 2005 having never seen his beloved play come to life on the big screen. Having starred in the revival, Denzel decided he was going to direct and star in the film version that Wilson wrote. He brings along Viola, Williamson, Hornsby AND Henderson to reprise their roles from the stage – making only 2 out of 7 cast members in the film new to the roles.
The story is set in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s. You can tell that it’s based on a play fairly early on, as there are very few set locations, and the actors engage in dramatic monologues or realistic banter. Not to say that’s a bad thing. It’s actually quite realistic, and I was pulled in almost immediately. Denzel plays Troy, the hard-working, blue-collar father of two who has no qualms about telling you how hard his life is (and was) and how being a man and taking care of your family are what’s important. He’s also pretty obsessed with baseball, having played in the Negro League but not making it to the pros. Life lessons are often analogous of baseball, and it’s done very well. Viola Davis plays his loving wife Rose, and Mykelti Williamson plays his mentally challenged brother Gabriel, who was injured in the war.
On one hand, you could say it’s a film about being black in the 1950s. On the other hand, and the hand that I tend to lean on here, it’s a film about family. It’s a film about wanting a life for your kids that you didn’t have. It’s a film about working hard and being responsible for your actions. Perhaps August Wilson was drawing on his own life experiences, but the story makes you laugh, cry, and hold your breath all at the right moments. Sure, it probably wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t black in the 1950’s, but It doesn’t come across as a film filling a diversity quota. It’s just a good story.
The fences are both literal and figurative, as you may have suspected. Troy works at building a fence in the back yard, but the real fences are in the hearts and minds of Troy, Rose, and to some extent, their son Cory. Cory is of the Baby Boomer generation, and while you the viewer root for Cory to get everything he wants in life (because you know how things are today), you realize that his dad is from a generation that is a world away from anything we know in 2017, and those fences are quite difficult to see through.
Denzel Washington has hit a home run (sorry for the bad baseball pun, but it’s the most accurate description). His direction is superb, and his acting is – dare I say – his best ever. All of the charm that a younger Denzel brought to the screen is here in an older character: the smile, the laugh. But then the darker Denzel takes over and you realize just how good he is. I can’t see anyone else in this role. I hate to say it, but his skin color probably helped him get nominated this year, and that’s a damn shame. Regardless of Hollywood backlash on lack of diversity, this performance belongs on the nomination list no matter what, and he deserves to win. I do wish that the production department had done something with his teeth, though. Denzel has a flawless set of bright white teeth. I can’t imagine a black character born in 1904 would have immaculate dental care. I hope this isn’t more distracting now that I’ve mentioned it. If it is, I apologize.
When it came time to play the political game of getting nominated, Paramount pushed for Viola Davis to get the nod as an Actress in a Supporting Role. There are no rules like screen time or word count that differentiate a supporting role from a leading one, so if a performance could be either one, the studio just suggests to voters whichever it thinks it has a better shot of winning. Davis is really the only woman in this film. She is in almost as many scenes as Denzel, and she holds her own against him. I think I would have probably written her name down in the leading role category, if I had a vote. I’m not sure who Paramount was concerned about her facing in that category, but she is almost a sure thing as it stands for Supporting. I’ve been a Viola Davis fan for quite a while, and she should have won for The Help back in 2011. Don’t think that this is a make-up statue for years prior; Viola is here and she means business. It’s a brilliant performance, and she should take home her first Oscar.
Having seen the film after the nominations were announced, I am surprised that Mykelti Williamson didn’t get a Supporting Role nomination. He steals every scene, and the Academy dotes on mentally challenged characters. I’m also rather surprised that Denzel didn’t get a directing nod. He’s directed a couple times before, but this film is outstanding, and seeing him hold two statues would have been cool. I’m actually really rooting for August Wilson to win the Adapted Screenplay honor posthumously. It’s a dialogue-heavy film, and although actions usually speak louder, these words mean something. I felt things in my gut as the characters interacted. I believed I was in the 1950’s. I hated characters at times and loved them at others. That’s how screenwriting is supposed to work.