Fences. Finally a black film not about slavery.
2016 was a good year for black stories. While films like 12 Years a Slave, Amastad, and Glory are fantastic films, there is more to the black experience than slavery. Yes, slavery and its ill-effects permeate even today. However, one can weave a story of those effects without having a setting in the early 1800’s.
Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) is an old bitter former baseball player. Viola Davis (Rose Maxon) is his honest doting wife, while Jovan Adepo (Cory) is the son who can never live-up to the standards set by his father.
Fences is refreshing. A black family living in a middle class neighborhood. Owning their home. A hardworking father and mother. Their son wants to go to college to play football. And every character is strong and articulate. In every sense, it is the “idealized” family life. Nevertheless, much is hidden beneath the surface.
Washington’s character is a heavy drinker, and though he denies that he’s an alcoholic (he ONLY drinks on Fridays), he’s rarely seen without a bottle. His excess of alcohol increases his bitterness towards the “whites” he sees as having usurped his potential on a baseball diamond. Washington’s character is an extreme, but it is an extreme some young blacks could associate with their fathers. In a moment when baseball, the “National” pastime was segregated, blacks were “asked” to fight in the war. When they came home they did not experience the same advantages as their white counterparts.
Washington’s bitterness take a greater toll on his life. It causes him to blame every shortcoming on his race, and be vastly more proud of his achievements. It also makes the relationship with his son hazardous. Rather than being the proud father of a boy reaching adulthood, while working, attending school, and being recruited by colleges to play football, he is bitter of his son’s opportunities. And fearful his son may become the same tired broken man he has become.
The key in Washington’s acting is the gate he gives his character’s walk. He stands straight, yet his stomach juts out, as if he’s leaning against a bar. He wobbles when he walks, yet is firm when he stands. It instills the confidence of the character. However, Washington is trapped. So trapped, his son wonders if he likes him.
The audience is painted the picture of a man who had greater dreams and aspirations, but had to settle for a family. That family, a source of love, has stifled him. This includes his brother, Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel Maxson). A retired war vet who had “half” his head blown-off and suffers from delusions.. Washington’s character is indebted to Williamson (Williamson’s Veterans disability checks pay for Washington’s home), and restricted. He can never leave Gabriel. Washington is a man “stuck” in one place.
Washington’s wife, as mentioned above, is played by Davis. It’s difficult for Washington to take a backseat in any film, but Davis puts him there. She is the devoted wife. Every week she collects her husband’s earnings so they can be put away for a later date. Every week she sees what her husband has become, but will not leave him. Yet, when the moment comes to take charge, such as her acting as referee between her husband and her son, there is no more powerful character in the film. If Washington’s character thinks he has self-sacrificed, it doesn’t come close to Davis. As with most women of the 1950’s, she has lived through her husband. She didn’t have many avenues open to her, less than Washington, because she had two strikes against her: she’s black and a woman. She knows her husband goes out to drink. She knows her son is leaving for college, and her other son only comes when he needs money. Her life is leaving. As Stephen Henderson’s character (Jim Bono, Washington’s best friend) astutely points out, she wants her husband to build a new fence for the backyard so she can keep her family in.
If there’s one strike against Fences, it’s a couple overzealous directorial moments. Washington is a first time director for this film. There are two moments when it shows. The first occurs in a scene depicting his final at-bat. He opts for a close-up, while the character holds a bat. Aiming at a ball hanging by a string from a tree in the backyard. The camera lens takes on a fogged fisheye effect. Washington’s error here is not letting the scene breathe. Letting the emotion carry the scene, not try to inject emotion. The second occurs when his son and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) are sitting on the back porch of their home. Washington opts for a low angle close-up and then brings a Spielberg-like mist effect. As Spielberg sometimes does with this effect, it becomes overplayed and heavy handed. The scene should be allowed to breathe.
Fences will be very familiar with older blacks who grew-up with stoic fathers, and still poignant for those who didn’t. Originally a play, the role that launched Washington’s career, it does its greatest work when focusing on Davis’ character. Washington may not be completely covered in Glory in his directorial debut, but he may be close to…..