Year Released: 2016
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
(PG-13, 133 min.)
“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” Jim Bono
This one is for grownups only. No car chases, explosions, or superheroes. Just acting on a level rarely seen and a script both timely and timeless, simply elegant and elegantly simple, tightly crafted yet appearing effortless.
Denzel Washington directs and stars in this adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which centers on a black garbage collector named Troy Maxson in 1950s Pittsburgh. Bitter that baseball's color barrier was only broken after his own heyday in the Negro Leagues, Maxson is prone to taking out his frustrations on his loved ones.
I may have to rescind my opinion about Hacksaw Ridge being the best film of 2016.
Fences has a purity about it; it depends entirely on the actors and the script alone. The setting is backdrop for them, the action minimal and spare. It is, of course, a play put to film, and some critics have complained.
They miss the nuances of lighting, cinematography, and a rousing score. No sweeping scenes of battle, no globetrotting heroes off to exotic shores. In short, no slick ways to manipulate us with essentially superficial trappings.
I hear Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the easy cadences on screen. At least one other critic agrees:
Most importantly, Washington as director knows that the biggest star in this film is its writing. When a film has actors this committed to speaking their lines, to the point where it seems they are turning themselves inside out with anguish, the camera is always exactly where it needs to be—it is with them, listening as intently as we in the audience are. This type of direction is a lost art nowadays, evoking a prior time when masters like Billy Wilder and Sidney Lumet plied their trades. In fact, it was Wilder who eschewed the notion that ostentatious, flashy direction was what made for great drama, saying that if “something were said to be well-directed, that is proof that it is not.” Washington understands this, and “Fences” is much more powerful for his devotion to his actors’ craft. When Viola Davis is showing you how hard her heart is breaking, the camera doesn’t need to be competing for your attention. –Odie Henderson
The early scenes set up the principle characters perfectly. We begin with the easy banter between Troy (Denzel Washington) and his best friend Bo (Stephen Henderson) as they ride the tail end of the Pittsburgh garbage truck circa the 1950s. The syncopated rhythm of their speech adjusts to the ebb and flow of trips to empty the metal cans into the truck.
There’s a lot of laughter, but it stills when Troy complains that all the drivers are white.
The next scene is in the small, enclosed backyard of Troy’s house, where he and Bono share a bottle of gin while Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) sits darning something. It is Friday, and this is a payday ritual. Troy entertains them with stories from the past. With each swig of the bottle, his tales gain more drama, until a past bout of pneumonia turns into a literal battle with Death himself. Bo and Rose laugh and cajole throughout these stories that we are sure he has told them time and time again, each telling varying depending on his mood or the amount of liquor consumed. Rose occasionally corrects him when he veers off the path of truth too much, but it is always with a smile and soft word.
The three step on each other’s lines with the easy intimacy of many years. Perhaps part of this ease is that these same three played in the 2010 Broadway revival. They are old hands at this, on stage and on the screen, with Rose and Bo a contented and friendly audience to the bigger than life Troy. While Rose sits demurely at her sewing, and the large Bono waits patiently on his bench for a nip at the bottle, it is Troy who struts across the screen, becoming characters in his own tales. The man not only charms them; he charms us as well.
Which lets us feel more acutely his mercurial peevishness, his mood swings and easy betrayals. Under the smiling veneer, a bitterness rages at Troy’s soul.
It’s there in the tattered baseball that hangs from a tree in the yard, where he takes an occasional half-hearted swing with his wooden bat. A far cry from the famous Negro League homerun legend he used to be. Time has robbed him of making it to the big leagues, which opened racially only after his heyday. He says it with a smile, but there’s bile in Troy’s description of Jackie Robinson, the black man who broke the color barrier in baseball.
I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn't even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn't nobody.
Instead of being happy about things changing, Troy is jealous and resentful about Robinson, a jealousy he later vents on his son, who is about to get a football scholarship to college.
The racial divisions shape the characters to some extent, the title itself referring at least partially to the many obstacles facing African Americans in that era. But it is really the fences Troy builds around himself that isolate him, and the ones he carelessly crashes through that seal his betrayal and ultimate fate.
In fact, when Troy bursts through his own color barrier and becomes one of the first black drivers in Pittsburgh, he is ironically even more isolated. Alone in the cab, now driving in an all white area, he has no easy camaraderie with his old friend Bono. Indeed, no one to talk to at all in his lonely driver’s seat. But that is not the real reason he and Bono drift apart. Bono has seen a part of Troy that he cannot accept, a breach he will not follow him through.
Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and best friends. Somehow the charming Troy manages to poison each relationship. Is it the sins of the father – his own was dutiful but abusive – being visited on the son? Perhaps that is part of the problem, but just as the playwright August Wilson doesn’t let racism be Troy’s scapegoat; neither does his let Troy’s parental history take the blame for his flawed character.
Such uniform excellence on the screen is rare. Fences is, in fact, among the best films this critic has ever seen.
Do not miss it.
Rose, Troy’s long-suffering wife, is the sweet to his sour. The stable homebody there to soothe and soften when he goes off the rails.
Soft words and warm food. Those are her defensive weapons. Everyone who stops by is invited for dinner or a sandwich.
Our recipe is a staple of soul food, as delicious as it is healthy – well almost. It does contain bacon, but haven’t we learned fat is good for us now?
Kickin' Collard Greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 slices bacon
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3 cups chicken
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 pound fresh collard greens, cut into 2-inch pieces
Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add bacon, and cook until crisp. Remove bacon from pan, crumble and return to the pan. Add onion, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, and cook until just fragrant. Add collard greens, and fry until they start to wilt.
Pour in chicken broth, and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until greens are tender.