The role of a father’s not easy to fill;
The best of intentions can leave a bad taste,
And efforts that some might consider a waste
Can trouble their progeny still.
A father can favor or ruin a child,
Although they may try to resist.
A fine line exists between slaps on the wrist
And a rift to stay unreconciled.
Though not every father will coddle or kiss,
They impact the lives they create.
A father may foster affection or hate
But later is easy to miss.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Movies have so many different elements to catch one’s attention—the score, the direction, the locations—that the acting can sometimes be an afterthought, important but not the be-all-end-all for a success. When it comes to a play, with its limited sets and reliance on dialogue, the acting is everything, and the same applies for films based on a play, at least those that remain faithful to the source material. Fences is a Triple A movie if ever I saw one (that’s All About the Acting for those who don’t know) and features some of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen, especially the slam-dunk pairing of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, reprising their roles from the Broadway revival.
Washington is both the director and star, playing Troy Maxson, a garbage collector who is easygoing while chewing the fat with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, who also appeared in Manchester By the Sea, by the way) but has a stubborn, controlling streak when it comes to his sons, whether it be the dissatisfaction with older son Lyons and his unrealistic musical aspirations or the hard-hearted opinion that young Cory has no chance at professional football. Viola Davis is his long-suffering wife Rose who balances Troy’s harder edges with sympathy and straightens him out when necessary. Both Washington and Davis give intense and incredibly nuanced performances, as does Jovan Adepo as Cory, and their interactions carry affection at first but also a high capacity for tension and verbal fireworks. While I was disappointed that Washington lost Best Actor, it’s about time Viola Davis won a well-deserved Oscar, considering she’s stood out even in small roles for years. It’s also the same role for which she won a Tony in 2010, and she’s now the only black actor to have an Emmy, Tony, and Oscar for acting categories.
While I’m not very familiar with playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays about African-American families throughout the 20th century, Fences isn’t my first exposure to his work. The Hallmark movie The Piano Lesson had a similar dialogue-driven narrative and style, but while that focused on matters of heritage and had a strangely supernatural ending, Fences is wholly realistic and tackles themes of fatherhood and responsibility with some truly complex characters. Troy, in particular, is both imperfect and admirable in his staunch adherence to personal responsibility; one of his first exchanges with Cory (the main one seen in all the trailers) sums him up perfectly, extolling his devotion to duty but putting that tough love ahead of anything like a caring familial relationship. When he admits to a reputation-shattering mistake on his part, he owns up to it but tries to defend his actions all the same, submitting to his responsibility with cold impartiality but not quite recognizing his own selfishness. He’s a proud man and a bitter one, thanks to racial prejudice and his own half-admitted past foibles that put his treatment of his sons in context.
Fences is a character study of flawed fatherhood, the kind that can mess up one’s childhood while shaping the person one becomes, for better or worse. Like its characters, it’s not perfect: the introduction of Troy’s mentally damaged brother (Mykelti Williamson) doesn’t flow as well as the rest, and I’m not sure it has the rewatch value of other play adaptations I love, such as Driving Miss Daisy. For the first half-hour, as Troy delivers folksy soliloquies that establish who he is, I wasn’t sold, but the emotional turns that follow confirm Fences as one of the great films of the year.
I never thought the whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the last two years was that egregious, but it might have seemed that the Academy overcompensated with the number of black nominees in 2016. Yet, with films like Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, it’s encouraging that these movies with and about African Americans are genuinely deserving rather than some token nominations to fill a societal quota. With its confined setting and focus on dialogue, Fences honors its roots as a play, and the exceptional acting distinguishes it as a first-class adaptation.
Best line: (Rose, to Cory about his father) “You can’t be nobody but who you are, Cory. That shadow wasn’t nothing but you growing into yourself. You either got to grow into it or cut it down to fit you. But that’s all you got to make life with. That’s all you got to measure yourself against that world out there. Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t…and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong, but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.”
2017 S.G. Liput
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