Tuesday, 21 February 2017
Baseball, racial tension, and garbage men; what do these things have in common? They are all heavily featured in Denzel Washington's fast talking, hard hitting, third directorial feature. This is Fences.
Life has been tough on Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). He was once an aspiring pro baseball player but never made it due to his race, so he believes. He has a loving wife, Rose (Viola Davis) who supports him and guides him as he strives to support his family. He has a brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who has a mental disorder, an estranged son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who only comes by for money once a week, and a younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has the potential to be a pro football player. We see Troy juggle these relationships, but keeping up a wall, not letting anyone penetrate or get too close. But when you've seen life chew up people and spit them out, it's hard to share warmth and encouragement with your family when reality is not so kind.
There's no shortage of films about racial oppression at the Oscars this year (13th, Loving, Hidden Figures), but Fences is perhaps the most striking of them all. Its main narrative is one of family under pressure and beneath that is the undercurrent of a systematically racially bias society. This is also a film driven by powerful performances from every member of the cast. Denzel Washington is electrifying, rattling through his mini-monologues at a lightning fast pace and it is mesmerising. He is at his best here, fresh off an award winning run of Fences on Broadway with co-star Viola Davis, Washington delivers a monumental performance as Troy having been able to absorb the character during its time on stage. Davis too, in a supporting role here as the gentle housewife Rose, is on top form and this maybe her year to finally take the Oscar statuette home that she has deserved since The Help. Keeping up with her Broadway co-star and hitting every beat where he lets up his pace the film keeps moving and when those gaps in flow come, the audience notice. The leads' spectacular timing emphasise the narrative and power it forward.
This is film making. Stripped clear of unnecessary extras, Fences demonstrates what can be achieved when you combine a good screenplay with a talented director and an outstanding cast. There's no blockbuster special effects, no plethora of A-list names teaming up to fight a common evil, but what is onscreen is spell-binding. Washington's not only skilled in front the camera, but behind it too. He knows August Wilson's play like the back of his hand and his familiarity with it allows him to finely tune every element of his film adaptation to be the best that it can. Staged and blocked like a play, Washington's camera glides in and out of rooms in the small house, lingering rather than cutting, providing the feeling that we are often looking through that fourth wall. It is effective, allowing the actors to really get involved in their scene, together, without interruption or cutaway.
Washington's achievement is simply astounding. For only his third directorial feature, Fences is an accomplishment to behold. Simple and powerful with stellar performances all round. This is an intelligent piece of cinema that doesn't try to be showy. It uses its medium of film to do the basics of storytelling, but it does those basics phenomenally well.