Fences, rated PG-13
It took 360 days into 2016, but I finally saw my hands-down top movie of the year!
Fences is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the late August Wilson who is also credited with the screenplay. The play won a Tony Award in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the lead roles, and had a 2010 revival on Broadway, starring two-time Oscar winner (Glory, Training Day) Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and two-time Oscar nominee (The Help, Doubt) Viola Davis as his wife Rose. Washington directs the film version, his third overall, and first since 2007’s The Great Debaters. The film has received two Golden Globe nominations – for Best Performance by an Actor (Washington) and Actress (Davis). Joining Washington and Davis from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play are Stephen Henderson as Troy’s longtime friend and co-worker Bono, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy’s musician son from a previous marriage who Troy considers a freeloader, and Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump), as Troy’s brother Gabriel. Gabriel was badly injured in World War II. He has a metal plate in his head and walks throughout the neighborhood with his trumpet waiting to blow it for Saint Peter to open the gates of Heaven. In addition, Jovan Adepo stars as Troy’s youngest son Cory, who is a good high school football player being recruited by a university.
The film is set in Pittsburgh, and Washington does a good job showing us what a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950’s looked like. My wife loved the reminders of living in a tight-knit neighborhood where all the kids played outside together. Much of the film takes place on Friday nights after work in the small backyard of the Maxson home where Troy and Bono enjoy some gin. Troy was a one-time Negro League baseball player who had once hoped for a major league career but now hauls garbage for the city. Troy often goes off on monologues about injustices that have been done to him, often using baseball as a metaphor. He also touches on the importance of hard work, diligence and self-reliance.
The title of the film refers to the fence that Troy is building around the backyard, and that Cory and Bono occasionally help him with. Bono states that fences can both keep things out, and also keep things in.
Troy is a proud and bitter man. He is a good provider for his family (although later we find out it was Gabriel’s settlement payment for his injuries that paid for Troy’s home). He is also an ex-convict, who spent 15 years in the penitentiary for killing a man. Troy compares his father to the devil, never learned to read, has dialogues with death, and overall is very opinionated. Like all of us, his life is one of contradictions. He wants to be a good man, but makes some painfully bad decisions, reminding me of Paul, writing in Romans 7:15, when he states “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We see Troy reaping what he sows, and feeling the weight of the consequences of his decisions and actions.
Wife of eighteen years Rose is long-suffering. She is a person of faith and character, and we see her strength and wisdom throughout, especially the last part of the film.
Themes in the film include having and teaching a great work ethic, racism, secrets, lies, pride and guilt and the overall complex relationships Troy has with those around him.
The film features brilliant acting from Washington and Davis, the best I’ve seen this year. Both Washington and Davis should receive Oscar nominations for their roles here. They are joined by a strong supporting cast. I especially enjoyed Troy’s likeable friend and co-worker Bono played by Stephen Henderson who tries to warn him about things he is doing and tries to tell him that the world is changing around him.
The film is rated “PG-13” for language (the “n-word” is used frequently) and adult themes.