For all its impressive dialogue and exemplary performances, Fences left me…well…on the fence. On the one hand, this August Wilson-penned stage play is a remarkable work of theatrical genius, with its intimate character study of familial dynamics within a 1950s working-class African-American family embedded in urban Pittsburgh. Director and lead actor Denzel Washington sticks close to the source material while still allowing for cinematic flourishes here and there, using the camera and montage to accomplish artistic feats within the film one couldn’t experience in the context of a theater play. Yet while this faithfulness to Wilson’s drama is noteworthy, it also makes for an overly talky, overstuffed drama about a distinctly unlikeable main character. As such, I found Fences to be both admirable and unenjoyable. There’s a lot to like here, and there’s just as much to dislike.
Fences is a rich character study of Troy Maxson (Washington): former baseball player, garbage collector, alcoholic, philanderer, argument-starter, friend, husband, and father. The problem for me is that I didn’t really enjoy studying this character. Troy is deeply unrepentant, abrasive, and bitter, yet the film seems to generally present him as either sympathetic or even praiseworthy. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that Troy never seems to experience a full character arc in terms of redemption or a change in his essential nature, but he is eventually lauded with (literal) sunshine and roses, his obvious faults apparently washed away in a communal act of deliberate memory loss. I had similar problems with the closing moments of Kubo and the Two Strings, where a community chooses to remember a different (read: false) narrative rather than openly confront the dark truth. I think true healing can only occur when we are willing to face the brokenness and darkness. We experience reconciliation and integration within ourselves when we can see and name the brokenness for what it is, then move on, not by pretending like the bad things never happened. Perhaps I’m misreading these films, but their portrayals of communal memory and false narratives felt misleading and unsettling for me.
Viola Davis portrays Troy’s wife, Rose, with the same magnificence she gives to every performance. She was the best part of last year’s deplorable Suicide Squad, and her acting in Fences is a marvel to behold. While she should have won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in Doubt–in which she upstaged the always-excellent Meryl Streep–she certainly deserves the accolades she’s receiving for this film, even though it’s truly a leading performance. I suppose in Troy’s vision of reality, everyone is a supporting character to his hopes and dreams, crushed or otherwise. He’s the sort of man who won’t be upstaged, though Davis’ performance here is slightly more memorable for me than Washington’s. Stephen Henderson gives a solid supporting performance as well as Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend and the only person Troy doesn’t seem willing to betray for his own personal gain.
For all its religious language and imagery–crosses on the wall, images of Christ’s face in paintings, a church prayer service in a montage–the theology of Fences is problematic, especially regarding the afterlife. Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) has brain damage from WWII, and spends much of his time chasing invisible demons and devils in between his conversations with St. Peter at the pearly gates. It’s unclear whether the Christian imagery is Catholic or Protestant, and whether faith is seen as invaluable or a joke. Troy doesn’t care much for church; perhaps that’s a positive portrayal of it?
Death looms throughout Fences, to the point where Troy openly speaks to the invisible persona of Death in a few scenes, always defiant and resentful in his tone. While it explores themes of racial tension and identity, familial responsibility, and marital fidelity, perhaps its most prominent subjects is Life and Death itself. Who or what do we live for? Why do we continue to exist if our apparent purpose has been thwarted by circumstance? Troy is burdened with such questions, and he burdens the audience with his long expositions about his own shattered dreams and deserved happiness. But like most of the people around him, I was exhausted of Troy by the end of Fences. It’s worth seeing for the performances, but please don’t ask me to spend any more time with this character.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2671706/