Directed by Denzel Washington, Produced by Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, Screenplay by August Wilson, Based on Fences by August Wilson. Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney. Music by Marcelo Zarvos. Cinematography Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Production company Bron Creative, Macro Media, Scott Rudin Productions, Duration 139 minutes. (2hr 19mins.) Country: United States. Language: English. Rating: 12a.
Play on Today
Venturing into film directing for the first time Denzel Washington has chosen a play to adapt for the screen. Fences written by August Wilson is shaped as a family drama set in Pittsburgh in the age of the cities growth and expansion. The couple at is heart are Rose played by Viola Davis giving an Oscar worthy performance as a middle aged woman married to Troy in his mid fifties played by Denzel Washington. As the two leads they do not place any cultural struggled as the drama but the relationships they have with their close family. In fact the only outsider is an old colleague of Troy whose acts as a folk for story telling in the backyard. Discrimination does come into it as an aside but it avoids political messages. Where can you go wrong with such a good cast?
Primarily it is about the contest of father and son in a rivalry born out of disappointment and poor choices. It begins with a dialogue between Troy and Bono at work on hanging on dumpster and emptying very lightweight bins. Trash being small beer in those days apparently. They walk home and discuss the complaint Troy has made about not being allowed to become a dumpster driver. The move is implied as being blocked because of his race. They exchange sexist and workplace banter, using the n word (which is a 12a classification as it is outdated racist language) as braggadocios they act out the past in a contrived male language bordering on sexist as well as racial offensive except they have the licence to use it as it solidifies their masculinity in their minds. It crosses over in a reduced way when Troy talks to Rose with in their case impish comic marital prenuptial negotiations. Rose is a homemaker totally at ease and comfortable with her home and the possibility of it improving bit by bit without holding big expectations. Troy is on the other hand in dreamland where he is searching for something other than the inevitable route to the grave which gives the notional premise to the play.
Sam Cooke wrote Jesus be a fence round me. He had no fear of death therefore but wished to be protected by the Lord Jesus. The faith which Troy doesn’t have isolates him and makes him sole defender of his place. Fences to him are to be constructed here on earth. Platitudes, clichces are trotted out in the script as reflection and in the language are akin to Church preaching on sinning. Troy has a gift for sinning. Sinning against himself in his early life by not concentrating on his baseball skills but getting immersed in crime which put away any chance for sporting advance. Instead he spent 15 years in jail and it is the period after this when he has brought up two sons with Viola, one who is a man on a mission to be a musician, Lyon played by the mature looking Russell Hornsby, whose attitude of creative and loose come what may approach to things contrasts with the fixed ideas of Troy whose own creativity was lost back in time. There is an undercurrent of jealousy in this but never fully explored. There is also a more directly presented parable of their younger son, the 14 year old athletic Cory played with immense sensitivity and strength by Johan Adepo, who is but a mirror of the past Troy has had. Troys caring side is expressed through his disabled brother. A war veteran whose cranial damage required a steel plate which contributes to his polarised, asbergers type state, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), has just moved from the house to display, alongside Lyon’s moving out, a blunt display of his independence which further challenges Troy. Troy manages to deal with these moves but cannot face the last one. Two strikes is used often and I see these as the two strikes. Troy in August Wilson’s mind avoids being menacing though scouts the boundaries the further discontent and disconnection with Gods purpose manifests.
Building fences is the clumsy metaphor of the play and how it is made drama. With it originating as a stage play it is very compressed and reliant on the set pieces around the interior of the house, the living room of which reminds you of the cornflour blue of the film Moonlight which has the colour line through it. The interior is bright and very well kept in shiny chromium sixties style with furniture on hire for 15 years still in use. They have no TV and they have a refrigerator which is the first thing Troy reaches into for his Jackhammer Dry Gin when he returns from work while he discusses the dinner and local gossip with Rose and how she’s been making out during the day. The home is a stable place for Cory, Rose and Troy and the job on the rota is building a fence to an empty rundown property next door. In a back yard type place the raggety overgrown unkept disorder is in a way comforting ascorder means urbanity and the trees, bushes, vegtable garden and others variety of tending makes for a casual mix of what might be a plantation workers yard. The order and disorder are an important methapor in Denzel Washington’s approach as are other touches. Troy takes his sons gift and puts it below the work and studying mantra he believes would better equip Cory. To Cory this runs against plans he has made as adjustments. His job at a store is to be replaced by a scholarship to a school requiring his baseball skills above academic skills where at the same time he will be able to study outside of the baseball training and paling. He also has organised work at the store on available weekends. He has Rose’s backing. Troy on the other hand is fixed and this is regressive for everyone. Moving on is not in Troys mindset. He is so selfish and everything around him relates to his own battling with the devil. He also has cause to be contrite in later events. As I noted musician Lyon’s has escaped the grip of his father and chosen his own future. There is solidity reflecting this in the paying by Russell Hornsby.
Being a play without the range of a Macbeth or Three Sisters this somewhat restricts staging as so many scenes are in the same set, the backyard or kitchen, living room. For it to work takes a very clearly crafted order and this film moves from having at times flowing interludes to the jumping around framed set shots pictorially pretty but basically daylight lit nice couplets and monologues. Thankfully in an important scene involving Viola which will be recognised as a career performance is filmed as a static framed head shot mostly which is right on the emotional visceral painful thrust of the narrative. Rose brings a major problem of heart over head and examines Troy’s framework in unusual confrontation showing how deep her previous compliant self has gone along. It shows up how much Troy himself has not addressed his past or confronted his demons. In another scene a technique which I ‘dissed’ as a poor choice at the beginning of Moonlight, is here used to carry the flow and externalises briefly the carry of the narrative. It is when a revolt shot is used and each face is ful of expression as they speak and the rotation carries the dialogue effortlessly. If only the rest of the film had been laid out in a pattern and not patchwork of cinematic choices. It has the feel of a play too much of the time and even theatre screenings of plays, National Theatre Live for one, have a form and fixed style and structure which does not flit about. The style is rich on occasions and when time has passed – to the final act presaged by a snowfall – the formula is unbroken and fixed as before. Some wisecracking critics often come out with directional reposts described as ‘well directed’ an underpinning of a film ‘not being well directed’ as if drawing attention to the cinematic values present at times – I think it’s important to say we’re a breakdown occurs and where a flow and assured passage carries is achieved or an outcome. It is part of the viewing experience as is sitting in a theatre would be watching Denzel and Viola on stage would be totally different to this film. Maybe it is Washington’s choice to cool down, to remove the menace and ramp up the garrulous aspects as his own persona is able to carry it more convincingly. In a review a scene is described thus – “… of claustrophobia … there’s clear evidence that careful thought has been put into the quiet visual architecture of this film; … example, where Bono warns Troy of impending ruination, places the actors in the bottom right of the frame (a scene which does not occur in the play and is basically a wise move in choosing a spot to film/replicate impending trouble visually) while rubble and an empty field symbolically take up most of the screen. I disagree on the basis the film has few moments such as this. When they do as I previously noted, they only serve to disrupt a flow so important and not replicating a stage plays approach. They have not choreographed it for screen and several shots are staple stage replicates. The atmosphere is achieved with the back yard being reminiscent of the rural they would prefer to bring up children in.
America is lost in its Entertainment mould with the decades of Crime thrillers, Space age, Sci-Fi, War heroics, Pratfall College, Financial swindle, Corporate greed, Sexual shenanigans, and many more genre flowing towards the expectations of an unsatiated Public whose expectations follow the hype and out of the mainstream ,assively omportant groundbreaking movies emerge despite the – and this critique is broad given it’s within a review – vast production and sometimes failing box office hit and miss targeting of audiences. Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas, The God Father and many others of equal stature are not the norm. They follow incredible journeys in cinema, On the Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night, the influence of Foreign Cinema, in creating a landscape where present day filmmakers struggle to be seen. The films, especially in ethic rooted film is fresh and full on in examining issues and positions. Society is reflected. Also Fences is; and this is no slight on a Denzel Washington, there is a pecking order in the screening and output. Denzel Washington’s profile is such that this film gets more traction than it might otherwise have had. It is a very good debut and fairly safe and challenging as Troy’s character is not one you would immediately empathise with. It opens up performances though which are from the first division. Viola Davis and Jovian Adepo spectacularly inhabit their parts. The screenplay for this 29 year old play was penned by the late August Wilson himself. He carries through on Troy Maxson’s dance with the devil over a fence he is slow in building and likely to be caught out. The baseball similes or straight references even, take to the park throughout.
I really enjoyed the introduction to the work of August Wilson and the stage plays set 29 years before in Pittsburgh must accumulate a large library of varied purposeful interpretation of the ethnic conditions playing out in a big city along similar lines to Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams or as a contrasting backdrop to the more explicit approaches to political hatred and manipulation in Orson Welles Mancunian Candidate. The demons are still around and while this film brings to new audiences including the Cory age, very well conceived drama depicting the important things in life. The family and direction of travel for equality and a sense of a creator whose work is us. Where is the life manual except in our genes and these now are being conquered daily as coping mechanisms for ill health and the mind is yet capable of controlling itself without derangement and falsehoods or projections which are baseless and void of fact. The magic of plays is lost and the era is well documented by now so the primary focus of the father son relationship must be disposed to inform our enquiry. This it does in part by the confrontational aspects which are repeated in various guises until the more informative exacting deep delving dialogue gives you in very rewarding viewing central reasoning and what the message concerns. It is certainly an approachable watch and opens alternative viewpoints America and the rest of the world would do well to examine. The central themes may even be Aristolian or Homeric with male, female needs apart. Unresolved masculinity. The blue don’t strike out. They consider, needs and wants and dreams as the film suggests at one point. You would think music would be an important part but it is kept for Rose’s church going and A song passed down through Troy. It makes for a well counterpoint to Gabes bashed trumpet and the ‘motif’ of collected and disused brass instruments unplayed, neglected and unloved. There is a lot of love in this film and the hardship is in the entrapment.
22 February 2017
On general release and a 12a rating. 2hr 19mins.