A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney
Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some suggestive references)
By Cole Schneider
There is much to love about actor/director Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences” that its relatively few shortcomings take on a heightened sense of frustration. The story follows a tough, working-class black man in 1950s Pittsburgh as he navigates his family through the social constraints of the day and the personal demons he heaps upon himself and his family. Functionally, it’s a chamber-drama about race, class, family, and faith.
Denzel and Viola Davis reprise their roles from their 2010 Broadway production and deserve any and all praise that will be headed their way during award season (they’re both already nominated for Golden Globes). There is a lived-in humanity that each brings to their character, coming off both light-on-their-feet and burrowed under the weight of their environment. Denzel has always excelled most when he plays the overly-tough father-figure that is at once the good guy and the bad guy. It’s a role he plays with great authenticity as Troy Maxson in “Fences”, especially in the laid-back, comic scenes. However, it’s Davis’ Rose Maxson that I found the more powerful—and certainly the more sympathetic—of the two. I would love to one day go to the theater or the cinema and watch her story.
Themes of racism and family intertwine effectively through the calm of Davis’ face, nuanced conversations about workplace politics in pre-Civil Rights-era America, and a series of dramatic showdowns between father and son. Unfortunately, the narrative also force feeds us those themes through a litany of baseball metaphors with diminishing returns and an ending I won’t spoil, but will acknowledge is lacking, all while lacking any cinematic quality or dramatic propulsion until its final act.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
By Matt Greene
I may be the only person on earth comparing new race-drama Fences with 2009’s superhero epic Watchmen, but hear me out. Both are based on acclaimed, non-film works (stage-play, comics); both are big, dramatic period-piece social stories; and despite their noble intentions and commitment to their sources, neither transfer as films.
In what is only one step beyond a filming of the stage-play itself, Fences is a high school acting competition, with each performer delivering monologues with clockwork precision but with little connectivity. This is far from entirely the performers’ faults. Most of the cast is the same from the most recent Broadway-run about this troubled 1950s black family. And while they were probably great on stage, the ultra-dramatics and super-written-feeling dialogue are ham-fisted on the big screen.
Notably, the actors still have their moments. Adepo and Hornsby are standouts, and Davis is so great she even pulls off some blatant Oscar-clip moments. Unfortunately, they are asked to deliver some distractingly soap-operatic tragedies with impossible naturalism.
At the center of all of this is director and star Washington, who despite his decent acting performance must take the blame overall. As the (perhaps warranted) bitter-old-man at the center of this tragedy train, he basically never stops talking, both verbally and in direction. Telling stories he’s definitely told before and spouting off constant baseball metaphors, all I could think was how crazy it would drive me to be his friend. Worse yet, there’s a dangerous message about abuse that is played off more like a character quirk than a problem.
Fences is an occasionally stirring American period-piece whose troublesome & obnoxiously melodramatic awards-bait fodder becomes more-than-a-bit grating.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars