Movie Review: Fences



PG-13 | 2h 18min

Director: Denzel Washington

Writers: August Wilson (screenplay), August Wilson (based upon his play)

Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson

by Jason Koenigsberg

Denzel Washington acts and steps behind the camera to direct Fences, a film adaptation of the stage play about a father coming to terms with race relations and struggles to raise his family in 1950’s America. It starts out as a typical drama of a working class family but thanks to a few unexpected revelations from the characters Fences turns out to be a powerful film about how in marriage people often sacrifice some of their hopes and dreams. It is also a portrait of a man’s fears and weaknesses as well as illustrating how families can cause as much grief and damage as they can provide love and nurturing. 

The film opens up with an overhead shot of a garbage truck driving down a street. The audience can tell from the cars that we are in the 1950’s and through a few more establishing shots the audience learns that we are in Pittsburgh. We meet two garbagemen on the back of the truck, one is played by Denzel Washington, the other by character actor Stephen Henderson (who is having a good year, he was most recently seen in Manchester by the Sea). They are discussing racial issues in the sanitation industry and their conversation progresses into racial issues in professional sports. Fences deals with problems of blue collar workers during the 1950’s and how they parallel problems working class Americans face today. 

Fences is primarily a dialogue driven film since it is based on the play by August Wilson. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles from the stage and translate the story seamlessly into a movie. Mr. Washington directed both the play and the film. From the stoic direction and lack of music and editing it is fairly easy to tell that this was a play. Early on working class values and African-American values are illustrated through the family dynamics. Fences also deals with gender and race relations during the Eisenhower administration and how they started to change under President Kennedy. 

Alcoholism and how it can break apart a home is another theme that runs through the film. Washington’s character has a drinking problem that causes dissonance in his marriage and his relationship with his teenage son played by Jovan Adepo. The dialogue is fast paced and drives the action in the movie. The characters really become the heart of the story and Fences is a showcase for its actors, especially Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as the leads. Denzel plays an old and weathered alcoholic beaten up by missed opportunities and hardships life has thrown at him very well. He once again gives a strong and commanding performance dominating the screen and illustrating a volatile temper. Viola Davis achieves redemption after disappointing in this summers Suicide Squad and returns to form in a heart-wrenching performance that along with Denzel should earn Academy Award nominations. 

The plot manages to pack in a few surprises between the family members that should not be spoiled and add levels of depth to the actors performances. The final shot, is a beauty and serves as a moment of meditation on life, loss and the importance of family even though they can often cause as much grief and heartbreak as they can happiness and joy. Fences is not always an easy film to digest and may have provided stronger audience reactions as a play, but it is an important film with a lot to say about family and features some truly outstanding performances. 


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