‘Fences’ props up hope, self worth in face of adversity

David Lee/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy
"Fences" | Paramount Pictures
Grade: A

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2016 has been a tumultuous year, to say the least. With all semblance of sociopolitical empathy seemingly foregone in favor of an unpredictable and frankly frightening new status quo, it’s difficult to understand how the past year has been anything but a burden. The beauty of Denzel Washington’s new film “Fences” lies in its moving depiction of a time when society was just as conflicted and when solace could be found in confronting the inequalities people faced in their daily lives.

An adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play of the same name, “Fences” is directed by Washington, one of its two principal players. The story follows the lives of the Maxson family, led by patriarch and matriarch Troy (Washington) and Rose (Viola Davis), as they navigate the transitioning state of race relations in 1950’s Pittsburgh as well as their own rising familial tensions.

As director, Washington demonstrates frustratingly average capability with respect to the narrative. Though the set pieces are believable and the shot structures are fluid, Washington’s directorial efforts cannot be lauded to any extent beyond adequacy. The film comes off as overly theatrical or staged from what appears to be Washington following Wilson’s stage directions in his original play a bit too closely. The direction doesn’t astound in any sense of the word — nor does it need to. The film’s profundity doesn’t stem from a technical standpoint but rather from its raw acting.

Washington continues his career of prolific portrayals as he wholeheartedly embodies the obstinate, cruel, duplicitous and ultimately fearful Troy Maxson. From what would seem like a fairly single-minded character, Washington derives an unbelievably nuanced performance — complete with an ever-changing likability that will leave audiences feeling equally repelled and moved at different moments in the film. He organically assumes the role of protagonist and antagonist, showcasing an unprecedented emotional range, even for an actor as reputable and venerated as himself. Surprisingly, however, he is not this movie’s most valuable asset, so to speak.

Is there anything Viola Davis can’t do? Seriously. From her incisive mind on television in the procedural “How to Get Away with Murder,” to the likes of her caricature of governmental scrutiny in this past summer’s “Suicide Squad,” Davis holds an expansive entertainment career that only pales in comparison to her even more expansive acting ability. She’s shown time and time again that she’s willing to challenge herself with her eclectic filmography, and “Fences” is no exception.

The film presents Davis with her most daunting emotive challenge as an actress, which results in her most impactful performance. While Washington assuredly channels the inadequacies of Troy’s cynical perspective toward life, Davis has the more strenuous task of both bearing the brunt of her husband’s failures on her shoulders as well as signifying her own strengths in the process — a feat she pulls off with undeniable grace. To act as a foil for Washington’s roguish tendencies may seem simple. Yet Davis doesn’t only enhance her co-star’s own brutish nature but also embodies a kind of silent fortitude in her perseverance through an unruly marriage. Her determination in ensuring her family does not crumble under the stress of secrets, disdain and outright hate alike illustrates Davis’ embodiment of emotional catharsis for the film’s audiences. When she hurts, they hurt. When she struggles, they struggle. And when she overcomes in spite of incessant adversity, so too do the moviegoers. If this movie acts as a vehicle for its two leads, Viola Davis is, without a doubt, the one with her hands on the wheel.

The release of this film could not be more appropriate given the seismic shift that the U.S. and the world at large face going into the new year. At its core, “Fences” conveys the idea that one’s life need not be defined by one’s actions, but rather one’s reactions. A person may leave a trail of pain and destruction in their wake, but what’s important is how those who are left to pick up the pieces cope with such a trial. They can either succumb to or carve a more hopeful identity out of despair. If Rose Maxson can not only recover but also flourish after witnessing the extent of her husband’s carelessness, 2017 could be on the forefront of a bright future.  

Contact Sanjay Nimmagudda at [email protected].