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USA 2016
Directed by
Denzel Washington
133 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a garbage truck worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. He once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player but was deemed too old when the major leagues began admitting black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, he is  determined that his son (Jovan Adepo) won’t follow in his footsteps, while his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) tries to mollify his intractability.

To call August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play a black ‘Death of a Salesman’ is by no means to belittle it.  After all, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play was not only also a Pulitzer and Tony winner, it is also one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century. Director Denzel Washington who no doubt looked at Volker Schlorndorff’s fine 1985 adaptation of the Miller play keeps not as close as that film to its stage origins but still close enough, which is a wise decision for in this case, as they say, “the play’s the thing”. Although we get some early scenes establishing the story’s setting, for the most part, the drama unfolds in Troy and Rose’s home, as the character’s configure and reconfigure, either inside the house or in the small backyard where Troy is in the process of building a fence. With only occasionally noticeably filmic strategies other than using the camera to bring us physically closer to the players, Washington concentrates on Wilson’s words and their delivery.  In both respects he is on solid ground.

Fences has a richly articulate text that, like 'Salesman', is an incisive portrait of a man struggling to do what he thinks is right In the patriarchal order of things but who is unable to grasp the stultifying effect that this has on his family as in the process he pushes away the very people he loves most. Added to this is the background reality of changing black-white relations in 1950s America.

The dialogue is intense and wordy and the delivery is flawless with the cast, including Washington, being largely the same as its 2010 Broadway revival (and for which both Washington and Davis won Tony awards). In the lead Oscar Best Actor nominee Washington is outstanding and given his tendency in recent years to go for the money, fans will be thrilled to see him tackle a serious dramatic role.  Viola Davis, who for some strange reason, given her centrality to the story (and quite ironically given Rose’s sub-ordinate position in the Maxson household) has been nominated for a Best Support Oscar, is also wonderful and the exchanges between the pair are never less than compelling. (Given the Academy’s appetite for “big” performances, both stand a very good chance of winning in their categories).

Not only is the film set mainly in the 1950s, with its modest scale (but a fine production design) and working class subject matter it recalls the Left-leaning social justice themed films of the period by directors like Elia Kazan, Delbert Mann, Clifford Odets and Stanley Kramer (which were often based on stage plays) and this will add an extra layer of pleasure for anyone fond of this style of work.  

If you want to see a strong contemporary family drama then see the currently screening Manchester By The Sea. If you feel like something in the same vein but with a bit of historical gloss make Fences your ticket. Either way you won't go wrong.

FYI: Viola Davis had a small role in Washington's 2002's thematically-related directorial debut, Antwone Fisher.




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