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Fences (2016) Review

Fences is a 2016 drama about a troubled man struggling to raise a family while he blames the world around him for his lot and reflects on the events of his life.

In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, deep in the 1950s, Troy (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage collector, week-to-week, doing his best to keep his home and family secure. A once promising baseball player, he never made it out of the Negro Leagues, bitter decades later for how segregation ruined his dreams. His best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), works with him and has been by his side for years, and the two are bonded by their place and destinies.

Troy revels in his stories, which grow beyond the limits of the truth, spinning them with such vigor and conviction, there’s hardly a word that feels false yet all seem shaded by mythos. At one point, he talks of his wrestling with the Death himself, and you get the sense that the fight might be fantasy but the struggle was not. In Troy’s hand is a bottle, most times, a swig of gin the very fuel he needs to sustain his well of words, but it too masks an ache. When the tales grow too far-fetched, there is always Rose (Viola Davis), his wife who has something always working in her hands, a constant voice of reason that tempers the monsters from within. Mostly.

They are joined occasionally by Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship. He’s not like his father, instead lulled by the lore of music and an unsteady paycheck, coming on Troy’s payday in hopes of a ten spot. There’s also Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy and Rose’s teenaged boy, a high-schooler with great talent on the football field and opportunities for scholarships, but the pains of Troy’s past keep him against what he calls a failed future, clearly scarred by the robbery of his own glories. And at last, there is Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s younger brother, injured in World War II, leaving him mentally impaired. Troy lives in a house paid for by government money to Gabe, though the man has long since moved out, trying to be independent, despite the belief he is on a quest from God to chase hell-beasts and earn his way back to the Pearly Gates. They are a family, and there is much that comes from being so.

Fences
Fences, 2016 © Paramount Pictures

Directed by Washington, and adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by the late August Wilson, Fences is a work of cycles as the weekly routines roll by on screen with a razor-sharp intensity that simply simmers with tension. Far more than a slice-of-life story, the film is a parable on the human condition, the power of an era to shape one’s lives, and the ghosts of failed dreams in authority over another. Washington imports most of the cast he worked with on the Tony award-winning 2010 revival, and the history of these actors working so well on stage translates with equally great effect on screen. This is a fast-talking film with nary a break for a breath, and yet there is not a time we want them to stop. Washington expertly lets his camera drift about these players, moving as if it were part of the cast, never intrusive and always engaging.

Washington is also at the top of his game again as a performer, crafting a character of tremendous weight that is often startling to witness, and yet it is the supporting cast that shines the brightest, with Davis a wonder to behold. Her performance is devastating, a sometimes unbearably painful thing to watch, as Rose struggles to keep balance in the chaos. When she shifts the pain of Troy’s perceived failures from him to her, it’s a moment that is as honest and heartbreaking as any you will ever see.

Williamson is also very strong, playing a character that quite easily could have been a mistake on screen, teetering on the edge of parody, yet he gives Gabe the proper sense of equal parts metaphor and truth that serve the story well. He is a reminder of many things for his brother, and he carries that burden with conviction.

Fences is a fascinating and troubling examination of family and hope, passions and pain, acceptance and denial. We are products of our times and the homes we are born into, and the lineage we are part of can shape much more than who we are. It can be what we will become. That is a truth often only others can see. Fences is a film of great importance, and with a message that is timeless.

Fences (2016)

Movie description: Fences is a 2016 drama about a troubled man struggling to raise a family while he blames the world around him for his lot and reflects on the events of his life.

Director(s): Denzel Washington

Actor(s): Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson

Genre: Drama

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