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Watching movies: "Fences"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 31, 2016

The best actors do not always make the best movies. Sometimes Denzel Washington simply lets his charisma get him through – “The Magnificent Seven” is one recent example – then in other movies reminds us why he ranks among our best actors/ The latter films include “Training Day,” “Flight” and now “Fences.". Even better in the case of “Fences,” he is perfectly matched by Viola Davis, an actress whose skills are as formidable as Washington’s.

“Fences,” which Washington also directed, is not a perfect film. Based on the play by August Wilson (credited as well with the screenplay), it never entirely makes the leap to screen, too often seeming as if we are watching something constrained by the sides of a theater set. For some, its bleakness will also be hard to take. (This has felt like a very bleak week in my own moviegoing, between this and “Manchester By the Sea.”) The failure hanging over the film’s characters is relentless. 

The main character is Washington’s, Troy Maxson, a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the late ‘50s. Once Troy was a promising baseball player, and he believes he could have succeeded in the major leagues. But racism in the form of baseball’s color line, age when the line was broken, and – we eventually learn – mistakes in Troy’s own life have kept him from the big chance he now longs for. His life should have its share of contentment – he has loyal wife, Rose (Davis); a good friend and co-worker named Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who holds the promise of a far better life than Troy had for himself.

But Troy is not content. Not even close. He is confrontational at work, where he sees the black garbage men denied privileges going to the white workers. He constantly jabs at his older, other son (Russell Hornsby), whom Troy sees as wasting his life. He is a brutal disciplinarian to Cory, trying to make him a better person but doing it in a way that denies the existence of love – and shuns chances for Cory because Troy is convinced they will lead to misery. And Troy does not seem to care enough about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who needs extra help because of a wartime injury.

Then there is Rose, who has been the steadiest influence on Troy for close to 20 years, providing him a stable home and something Troy is so incapable of: a clear demonstration of love. As we watch “Fences,” we hear how Troy has erred badly in the past and hope that somehow he has found his way with Rose and Cory, that his dips into a pint of liquor on Friday night and occasional trips to the local bar are enough to satisfy his worst urges. And we are doomed, it becomes apparent, to be disappointed. Not because Troy is a bad man – he doesn’t want to be one – but because he is a failed man, so blinded by his self-absorption that he cannot see what’s the right thing however much he thinks he has.

The film’s ending suggests that the people around Troy have come to understand him better than he understood himself. They may even have forgiven him a little. But forgiveness is not the same as excusing actions, and “Fences” is at bottom a tragedy.
It is a tragedy made stronger by Washington and Davis. Having sat through a series of more escapist Washington efforts in recent years (“Magnificent Seven,” “The Equalizer,” “2 Guns”), I was awestruck early and often by the work here – the force, the drive, the anguish, the rage and very much the subtlety he could bring to key moments.

As for Davis, I have been a fan for a long time, and this just adds to my admiration. There are scenes after the most sorrowful of turns in this film where she just takes over the movie, where Rose rightly diminishes Troy with her righteous sorrow. As I said, I can’t endorse this as a great film. At the same time, Washington and Davis should find their names on the Oscar nomination lists. Where the competition could be tough – Casey Affleck is grimly compelling in “Manchester By the Sea,” for instance – Washington and Davis are more than potent contenders.

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