Ghost of a Flawed Man Encountering the Gold
By Cristina Miller
When one hears the name “Denzel”, what springs to mind? Sidney Poitier 2.0? “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!”? That “Uncle Denzel” meme? Perhaps all of those apply, but “decent director”? One could say his first effort, Antwone Fisher was a fantastic start but it is no Citizen Kane (but what is, really? Bad comparison! Okay, how about it’s better than Duel but not as great as The 400 Blows, but I digress.) Denzel’s contribution to the world of cinema is him in front of the camera from his roles in Glory to his collaborations with Spike Lee. He completely immerses himself in the roles given to him but not so much as that of Troy Maxson in the Oscar-nominated film Fences.
Fences started out as a Broadway play written by the late August Wilson and is part of what some consider his magnum opus, The Pittsburgh Cycle, a group of ten plays taking place, with the exception of one, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The original Broadway cast in 1987 had James Earl Jones in the role of Troy, a hard working garbage man who earns a respectable living and Mary Alice as his loyal and wise wife Rose. The play and film centers on these two characters and their day to day lives involving their family as well as forces outside of this dynamic.
Denzel is a sight to behold in the film version. His face weathered and firm from years of struggle but yet, flighty at times when he thinks about his time as a baseball-loving youth. He is a guarded, stubborn braggart whose life could have had an alternative outcome. Troy is a counterpart of Willy Loman, a man who could have had it all but held back in some sort of way and Washington conveys that with the slightest of gestures.
Another revelation is Viola Davis as Rose, a role she also played in the 2010 Broadway revival in which she and Denzel starred in and won Tonys for. She is the glue that holds this film together. A woman of quiet strength who revels in the life she has built around Troy and their ambitious son, Cory, played by Jovan Adepo. She is loyal to her man until a confession tears down what she knew of her marriage.
The supporting cast, which uses a majority of the same actors reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival as well, are so comfortable and confident with the material that the actor and character are merged into one. No gray areas. They are those people visiting the Maxsons. Stephen Henderson, who plays Jim Bono, is a veteran of Wilson’s work; he also acted in other parts of the Pittsburgh Cycle. They are the secret weapons that helped Denzel bring his version to life.
The direction was superb, given that this is Denzel’s second film. The familiarity and understanding of Wilson’s screenplay shows, he is clearly experienced with the material and the actors. Every nuance, from the character’s expressions, to the wide shots of the neighborhood, the film flows seamlessly from one scene to the next. As a director, Denzel brought out the best from his cast and they delivered. It is this cohesiveness between the actors and director that make Fences not only a study in the machinations of a flawed man but the effect these flaws have in those that he has fenced in and out.
Fences has garnered many accolades from the Screen Actors Guild to the NAACP as well as four Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (posthumously, as August Wilson died in 2005), Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (yay, Viola!) and Best Picture. Fences is a compelling film and profound for me as a lover of the silver screen.