“Fences”: Living On After the Dreams Have Died


My annual Oscar-quest begins anew! Every year since 1997 I’ve endeavored to see every film nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards race, even if its place in the running can be attributed to blatant studio machinations, even when I know a film and I will be at odds with each other the entire running time. Fences, on the other hand, met my high expectations and then some. The only real issue I had wasn’t the film’s fault. I misread the theater seating chart, bought the wrong assigned seat, and got myself stuck in the second row from where the the cast all looked like towering monster heads.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Denzel Washington, once again in the director’s chair as well as starring, worked with playwright August Wilson to adapt his 1983 drama about the highs and lows of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh centered around patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington himself), a workaday garbageman with stories, opinions, and strict views a-plenty. As we walk alongside him through everyday life, at first he seems caring, jocular, benignly macho, hard-working, and charismatic whenever he’s telling tales that folks have heard him tell too many times. Hang out with him too long, though, and some tales take on a bit of an edge.

Viola Davis, light-years beyond just playing the Concerned Wife, is his loving partner Rose, neither meek nor shrewish, serving her husband in all matters and devoting every ounce of energy to him, their house, and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo from The Leftovers), who has dreams of his own that Dad lets him pursue under specific conditions.

Meanwhile behinds the scenes, things were falling apart.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Washington and Davis both won Tony Awards for their performances in the play’s 2010 Broadway revival, and bring three more vets back with them. Stephen McKinley Henderson (a longtime stage actor who’s moonlighted occasionally as a Law & Order judge) reprises his role as Troy’s best friend Bono. Russell Hornsby from Grimm is Troy’s older son Lyons from a previous engagement, who visits whenever his jazz-clubbing doesn’t pay the bills. Mykelti Williamson (Bubba Gump!) is Troy’s brother Gabe, who came home from WWII with post-gunshot brain damage and now keeps busy selling flowers on the street while swatting away imaginary hellhounds with his trumpet.

If you’re into American Horror Story, li’l Saniyya Sidney from the Roanoke arc hops aboard near the end.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Everyone’s world revolves around Troy. He’ll be the first to tell you he deserves it unless you catch him sinning, though if you you come at him, you best not miss. Before his garbage career, Troy played baseball in the Negro Leagues, but he never had the chance to follow Jackie Robinson into the majors. (And don’t think Troy has an embittered opinion or two about that guy.) Whether because of racism (his theory) or old age (that’s Rose talking), Troy got old and churlish instead of rich and famous. To an extent he had to learn how to function as an adult despite his crushed dream, like what if they made a La La Land 2 where we learn Real Jazz failed Ryan Gosling and now he works third-shift at Dairy Queen. Troy kept on living, but whether or not he truly accepted his fate is debatable.

His letdowns lit the way for each of his sons’ own paths. Lyons, who apparently grew up outside Dad’s direct purview, came up nice and polite, but not exactly handling basic responsibility. Cory has always lived under Dad’s thumb, trying to please him and strive for what he wants at the same time, but eventually weakening when the balancing act reaches a tipping point. The two brothers scarcely share a scene till near the end, when they compare notes on life but can’t get their impressions to line up just right. “Do as I say, not as I did” is not a viable parenting philosophy in itself, regardless of whether it’s the lone rule in Dad’s absence or the recurring, dispirited theme of his very presence.

In all matters, dutiful wife Rose has Troy’s back — especially with the boys, even in times when he’s too disgusted with them to go the distance. All that changes when Troy takes a sharp pivot that undercuts everything Rose knows and threatens to toss eighteen years out on the front sidewalk. In minutes Our Hero may have just lived long enough to see himself become the villain. And Rose, the devoted church-goer and queen of bake sales, will not have it.

When you’re the head of household, the closest thing to a role model that anyone around you has, you don’t get the luxury of indulging in arrogance or selfishness or the pursuit of fleeting “happiness” at everyone else’s expense just because old age is depressing and the specter of death is a bummer. It’s called a midlife crisis and it’s not a good look. At all. And you don’t get to complain when others around you start lashing out. Remember, chances are they learned it by watching you.

Also, obvious title metaphor is obvious, from the backyard perimeter that Washington perpetually procrastinates building to the emotional walls he erects to keep his sons at bay, among other variations.

Nitpicking? Except for the opening scene reworked into a day in the life of Pittsburgh trash pickup — all the better to establish the surrounding working-class scenery — nearly all of Fences is a bottle episode with scenes inside, out front, or in the backyard of the Maxson house. It’s likely this year’s tiniest nominee in terms of both cast size and scope of setting, but it’s dead-on accurate in capturing that side-street neighborhood ambiance — the narrow alleys, the aging paint and shingles, the tangled branches of the nominal trees growing from the cracks. I’ve seen a few detractors complain about claustrophobia…

So what’s to like? …which is their problem, not mine. When you’ve got powerhouses like Washington and Davis in their element and still in their prime, going toe to toe and showing the young pups how it’s done, I don’t need them to be journeying to Beijing by super-jet while fighting off zombie invaders with war cannons and eye lasers. Both shed all Hollywood veneer and vanity as a comfy old couple who don’t need to impress anyone — least of all Washington with his years-in-the-making potbelly and bouts of bullying rage. And yet his bravado withers in the face of the traumatic onslaught that is a Viola Davis scorned, unleashing a truly frightening ugly-cry supernova that threatens to blow Washington offscreen and through the back wall of your theater. Davis takes the helm for the rest of the movie and finds her way toward being everyone’s moral compass after her husband seems to have taken a ball-bat to his own.

This kind of intense family drama rarely plays for long at multiplexes anymore, but a quick look around any five corners of society reveals its lessons are far from mastered. Fences remains a sharp, unsettling look at the downfall of the African-American family and its ostensible leaders in the years after WWII, but I know too many white guys who have absolutely no room to talk.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Fences end credits, though I confirmed it was shot on location in Pittsburgh, same setting as the original play. Must be nice to live in a city that Hollywood allows to represent itself on film. Not than I’m bitter about how Pittsburgh also played the role of our own Indianapolis in The Fault in Our Stars. Nope, not bitter at all. That could’ve been us up on screen basking in the glory, but we’ll just be over here playing the part of Troy Maxson instead while Pittsburgh keeps on being the Jackie Robinson.

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