They build fences, don’t they: A film review of “Fences” (2016)

How does a movie weighed heavily by tension, and built with superb characters and acting, convey a powerful message that resonates with audiences? 

Christmas came late for me this time around, as I had to wait a little bit after the film “Fences” came to theaters before my mom would agree for us to go and see it. Based on my favorite American play and starring Viola Davis as ‘Rose Maxson’, and Denzel Washington as the tragic husband ‘Troy’, this is an explosive piece of cultural cinema that rips at the heart of the plights of untapped lives of African Americans in 1950’s Pittsburgh.

Real issues, and real tension

The story follows a garbage man by the name of Troy Maxson, a father and former criminal, who showed early promise as a baseball player but found it impossible to come up out of the “Negro leagues.” Facing advancing age and the drudgeries of day to day work, our protagonist shows a fiery bitterness at everything and everybody, including his son Cory (played by Jovan Adepo), whose chances of a football scholarship comes at odds with his father’s own frustrated views on life. Troy’s mentally disabled older brother Gabe (Michael T. “Mykelti” Williamson) also provides an avenue for conflict as his spiral downward, following an injury inflicted during his service in WWII, further enflames Troy’s sense of displacement in the world. Add in an extramarital affair coming back to haunt him, and our man Troy Maxson has a lot to answer for.

The original play

August Wilson’s original 1983 play “Fences” birthed an immediate sense of the ultimate American tragedy steeped in the lives of American minorities caught up in the trivialities of the day to day horrors we all face. It was Wilson himself who adapted the screenplay in 2005 shortly before his own death; talks over the proposed film at the time were stalled by the writer’s wishes to have a fellow black director at the helm to ensure a vision that understood the cultural background. Now flash forward over 10 years later, and we have this cinematic testament directed by its noteworthy star Denzel Washington. And Mr. Washington knows his stuff, both in terms of culture and of art.

Motivation to live

The film is dripping with religious superstitions and blues poetics. Troy’s brother Gabe earnestly believes he is to be Saint Peter’s trumpet player, playing for the pearly gates to open, allowing good people into heaven. Troy’s estranged son from a previous marriage, Lyons Maxson (played by Russell Hornsby) enters the scene with a fierce determination to continue playing music, even after a prison term and an uncertain future. The blues notes and the religious settings alternate, fuse together and break apart; they have their own voices and they sing to the spirit within each of us.

fences poster
A poster for the film “Fences”, 2016. (IMDB)

Now as to the music that Lyons plays. The music is what keeps him going, just as it’s something—any one thing—that keeps any of the characters going. Each of these characters has one thing: for Rose it’s her family and church. For Cory the son, it’s his frustrated relationship with his own father. For Lyons, it’s the music that he plays so he can continue, in a sense, breathing.

But what about Troy? What keeps him facing life and the daunting realities of his tomorrow?

For our hero Troy, it’s his face-off with death. Having already beaten the “grim reaper” once (whether in his own head or not we can never tell) Troy Maxson carries a chip on his shoulder and fights against the reality of irresistible mortality, and the idea of the walls building up around him, confining him

The film’s symbolic power

The containment of the self is the ultimate metaphor maintained through this film. The fences that Troy takes forever to construct around his house hold palpable power over the people and the setting. As Troy’s best friend and former prison mate Bono says at one point in the film, “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.” It is Troy trying to keep out death, while Rose tries to keep her family and sense of purpose in.  The story’s job is to unfold itself and fill us in on who failed and who succeeded.

The success and failure wrapped up in Cory is what moves us the most perhaps. As the son continues to fight against the sins of his father we look into the tragic turns that family takes as the mistakes continue piling up. As Troy puts a halt on Cory’s sports ambitions, we begin to wonder: Is this a father protecting his son from the failures he has himself faced, or is he simply jealous of his son becoming better than him?

Strong and deep roots

The question posed above is but one probing hallmark to a film that opened on Christmas Day 2017. As we begin our year of 2017 we find that it offers us a harrowing look at the lives of men and women who might otherwise go unnoticed. With unflinching performances by big name actors who put it all out there, we are given a transference—yes, a transference—of a story from one dramatic medium to another. And with this transference the basic monologues are left intact. One reviewer writing for New York Magazine commented negatively: “It’s not cinematic enough to make you forget you’re watching something conceived for another, more spatially constricted medium, but it’s too cinematic to capture the intensity, the concentration, of a great theatrical event.” However, perhaps the brilliance of “Fences” as a movie lies not so much in the technical aspects of the film: the shots, the lighting, the set design (the film handles these aspects more than adequately—look at the shot of the heavens towards the end to see what I’m talking about).

Perhaps it was not the technical brilliance of the film, but rather, a cornerstone any great film should start with: An excellent script dripping with pain, humor, music and even a touch of a spiritual connection to one’s roots. We have such a script here, adapted from a play by the original playwright, a man who knows a thing or two about getting to the raw and ripe center of the basic fears and preoccupations any man would possess. The story is not a happy one, not completely at least; but it is honest, and causes a simple stirring long before the credits roll.

Simply put, “Fences” is a film to watch at least once. Though I for one plan on seeing it again and again and again and again. Such is the power of one of the most powerful tragic dramas I’ve the chance to see.

James Moore is a contributor to The Daily Runner.