Movie Review – Fences

When I saw the trailer for this movie, I almost jumped out of my seat.  Denzel Washington has used his considerable talent and “pull” over the last few years to do projects that ask tough questions of his fellow humans.

I thought his turn in “The Equalizer” posed important thoughts about the consequences of one’s actions and how one must juggle what you “can” do with what you “should” do.  His character discovers that while he could take on “the bad guys”, perhaps the ramifications of his actions must be sufficiently pondered.   The impulse to wreak havoc can cause irreversible damage.

His alcoholic pilot in “Flight” forced the audience to make a tough call. Can a man who endangers hundreds of passengers by flying drunk be a hero?  Washington portrays a “high-functioning” drunk who overcomes his self-induced handicap enough to take quick-acting, and radically unthinkable, solutions to a hopeless crisis in mid-air.  I have watched that film several times just to read Denzel’s face and try to interpret his thoughts as he makes several critical ethical choices throughout the film.  The pilot’s ethical thought-processes veer, like a drunk, back and forth down a hallway of choices before his character faces a final resolution.  It’s a painful journey and ends with a mixed result that doesn’t fully satisfy.  And it shouldn’t…

Years ago, during my time working for a local school, I organized regular outings for the students to go see different live performances in St. Louis.  Every year, I sent at least one group of students to see a play at the Black Reparatory Theater.  Whenever they had an August Wilson play, I sent a group.  My wife, in the years before we got to know each other, joined one of those groups as a chaperone and saw “Fences” at the Black Rep.  It made quite an impact on her.  When we saw the movie trailer we both made a mental note to make “Fences” one of our date night movies.

The plot of the play is centered around Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Oscar Nominee Viola Davis).  Troy was Negro League baseball player in the 1930s who would probably have been a major league star if not for Jim Crow restrictions preventing blacks from playing in the major leagues.  Now Troy is a sanitation worker in his 50s raising a teenage son from his marriage to Rose and occasionally sharing some of his meager earnings with a jazz musician son from a previous relationship. 

This dialogue heavy film is a powerful portrayal of life on the edge.  While it’s about a black family in the 1950s, many of the conflicts that arise have deep roots in ambition, disappointment, and the frustration of lost chances during youth.  Obviously, these are human traits and challenges shared by all races. 

I look forward to watching this film again, more than once, if for no other reason that I missed parts of dialogue.  The film is rides the broad shoulders of Washington’s powerful acting and directing. Davis’ portrayal of the conflicts dealing with the “war” between her husband, his sons, and his commitment to Rose give Washington a worthy character to spar and court with.  Steven McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono, Troy’s friend who has been with him through trials and triumphs, is chummy when needed but also stands ready to give gentle and keen counsel to Troy when he seems destined to make another major life-altering mistake.

While sprinkled with some adult language and mature discussions, Fences is an important statement about the state of families and fidelities of all sorts that every family should watch, discuss, and dissect.   Wilson’s play won a well deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and is part of his ten play series centered in his hometown of Pittsburgh. 

I don’t suppose anything can help a white-bread suburban-raised boy like me understand the black experience in America, but I think efforts like Fences can help us be more aware of the challenges that few other ethnic groups in the USA have had to face in the last four centuries of our existence in North America.  Run, do not walk, to see Fences.

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