This is a highly praised film centering on a character that you will disdain. Keep that in mind when you buy a ticket.
After seeing the previews for Fences, I went to the theater with a bit of trepidation. Despite great actors like Denzel Washington, who also directed, and Viola Davis, it seemed like a film with more style than substance. Unfortunately, that was my feeling throughout most of this movie.
Given that this film, like this year’s Moonlight, was widely praised by every reviewer with standing, I recognize where my following criticism leaves me. However, I’m beginning to believe that many reviewers approach Mr. Washington in the same fashion as they did the late Ingmar Bergman, where artistic praise was required to hold one’s standing as a critic.
Nonetheless, this is a 2 hour and 13 minute film that seemed even longer. Mr. Washington plays Troy Maxson, an angry, sullen Pittsburgh sanitation worker in the 1950s. An ex-con who served over 10 years for killing a man in his youth as well as a sensational baseball player who was too old to leave the old Negro League and join the Major Leagues, he is arrogant, bombastic and dictatorial in his personal life. While he correctly attacks racism in society as well as his employment, he ridicules Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron because they had the opportunity to achieve that which he was denied.
When Troy returns home each day from his garbage truck, he lashes out at Rose (Ms. Davis), his wife. Sure, he can be fun and loving, but there is a nasty, bitter emotion dominating nearly every waking moment. In addition, he devastates his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high school senior who has a chance to play football in college. With his baseball career over, Troy harangues Cory to give up sports and prepare to find a trade to support himself as he has done.
The two people who dominate the film are Ms. Davis as well as Stephen Henderson, who plays Troy’s friend Bono. Bono also works collecting trash, and he has far more sense than Troy. When he discovers that Troy is having an affair, his admonishment to end it goes in one ear and out the other.
As noted, Ms. Davis gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Maxson, a woman who tries to remember what her husband was like when she happily married him 18 years earlier. She will only go so far in tolerating his verbal abuse, though she continually swallows her pride to hold her family together.
Though Troy ridicules his 34-year-old son (Russell Hornsby) from a prior relationship, his one saving grace is the way he cares for his mentally ill brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). Gabe is a slow witted, caring man suffering from a terrible brain injury while serving in World War II. However, even then Troy finds a way to divert funds intended for Gabriel, and he becomes the classic definition of a first class prick.
In the end, it is extraordinarily hard to get involved in a film when the principal character is nothing more than a wretched human being. While I know the movie is based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. Yes, it has fantastic acting and is at times brutally intense, but I will simply close by saying that the ending will likely leave you shaking your head in despair.