It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed a compelling and thought-provoking drama that shook me to my core. After my viewing of the film Fences, an adaptation of the prolific August Wilson play; I left the theater experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. I felt feelings of joy, laughter, pain, anger, and sadness. I was on a rollercoaster ride that filled so many of my senses, that it dawned on me it has been years since I’ve had this experience watching a movie.
Let’s begin with the story; Fences is a metaphorical tale about a working-class Black family living in 1950s Pittsburgh, PA. Troy Maxson is the patriarch of the story and the narrative opens up with him sharing anecdotes with his close friend and co-worker Jim who both work for the sanitation department. Troy Maxson is a cantankerous, stubborn man who invests in old and archaic beliefs on how to raise a family. And sadly because of his ethics and moral convictions, he slowly chips away at the ones who love him. His relationships between his two sons Lyons and Cory have a complicated bond with their father and Troy’s connection to his wife Rose is an even bigger conundrum.
These series of events, of course, unfolds from one scene to the next which are constructed very much in a theatrical structure as the curtain rises and falls during the transitions of seasons throughout the timeline of this story. The metaphor of the film’s namesake Fences comes into play when Troy tells his son, Cory, to help him build a fence for their backyard. The fence itself is a character in the film. In nearly every scene, it plays an important role. The fence at one point serves as a metaphor as a wall that sets boundaries of rules that Troy uses to parent his sons. The fence also serves a symbol of keeping the family together through financial security. Troy is a man who believes the only way to support a family is through hard work through a blue collar job and doesn’t hesitate to fulminate against anyone who thinks otherwise. The fence also serves as a barricade that keeps Troy out from seeing the pain, passion, and love his children and wife do have for him, as he uses his tough exterior to “fence” them in.
Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis plays his wife, Rose. I can watch these two read the Yellow Pages and still find their performances compelling. However, I must say that Washington and Davis’ work on this movie is their best to date. At the time of this review, Viola Davis has won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting actress. Sadly, Denzel Washington lost his win to actor Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea, which in my opinion was criminal. Especially given Casey’s recent sexual misconduct that was somehow brushed under the rug and Hollywood has looked the other way. I’ve seen nearly all of Denzel’s films and his portrayal of Troy Maxson is the greatest performance of his career.
Aside from the powerhouses of Washington and Davis, the tertiary characters were incredible. Mykelti Williamson as Gabe (Troy’s brother) was an excellent depiction, and I’m amazed that there hasn’t been more buzz about his role in this film. Gabe suffered a traumatic head injury while serving in the military and as a result, is of unsound mind as he believes that he is the archangel chasing hell hounds and seeing the gates of heaven.
The cinematography is beautiful and the choice of vibrant color used in moments of happiness, and lackluster tones in moments of sadness was executed with brilliance and skill. The story of Fences albeit told in a time filled with antiquated values and judgments about family is completely relatable and could easily be told from a contemporary story with the same parallels today.
It was refreshing to see a fully fleshed out three-dimensional Black drama of a family dealing with all of the tempestuous feelings we experience growing up trying to find our path in this life. This film isn’t about Black pain or the struggle of being economically disenfranchised. This movie is about real life which just so happens to be filled with Black fully actualized characters that have depth and grace. I would recommend families to celebrate this MLK holiday and watch Fences, and if you miss it this Monday, see it on Tuesday.
A beautiful masterpiece in filmmaking.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.