Seeing your favorite movie stars grow up, become old and still remain at the top of their craft is a privilege. My Dad got to see Sean Connery, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and James Garner age gracefully and deliver some of their best work in their golden years. Watching “Fences,” I had the realization that this was happening to me as well- Denzel Washington, one of the best actors of my generation, is getting older. Washington’s performance in the title role of “Malcolm X” is one of those gigantic, earth shaking movie performances that greatly inspired me. So is his work in “Philadelphia,” “Devil in a Red Dress,” “Training Day,” “Flight” and every other time he collaborated with Spike Lee. Few actors can pull you in and captivate you every time the camera is on them. I don’t even need to mention how handsome he is, since Salt N Pepa did it for me (“…a body like Arnold with a Denzel face”). He’s a 100 proof movie star and a fiercely committed actor. Now, directing his third film and making the first ever adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning stage play, Washington has hit another peak.
Washington stars as Troy, a garbage man who lives with his wife in Pittsburgh. Troy was once a baseball player but bad personal choices led his life away from fame. His friends and family both love and endure Troy’s behavior, as he’s often gregarious but can act like a “crazy old man.” Troy’s tortured past and the story behind his mentally impaired brother (Mykelti Williamson) reveal a man with volcanic emotions.
Back to the topic of aging- it’s a pleasure to see Washington play an old, out of shape and often unsympathetic man. Troy isn’t wholly unlikable, but stuck in a lifelong behavioral patterns that are maddening to those who know and love him. “Fences” is about fathers and sons, the generation gap that occurs, the need for one to always show the other what a “man” he can be and how it can be a struggle for a son to love the man he spends his life competing with and vice versa. Wilson’s play takes place in the mid 1950’s and depicts the lives of blue collar African Americans. Yet, like any great film, “Fences” is relatable to any audience, who will likely connect with the universal truths and tough personal questions it poses.
Washington’s film presents a unique challenge to audiences, as this is a character and dialog-driven film. Some may get antsy with all the talking but Wilson’s words are so rich with life, I enjoyed the emphasis on conversation. Considering the painful turns the story takes, the early scenes, with playful storytelling and humorous asides, are more than welcome.
Davis has the most powerful scenes and gives a pitch-perfect, lived-in portrayal that provides balance to Washington’s more demonstrative turn. Yet, Washington embodies Troy’s pride, physicality and inner sadness so persuasively, its among his most immersive and altogether terrific performances. Despite often playing likable roles, Washington excels the most when playing tortured, imperfect men. Everyone in the cast (which only lists ten actors) is excellent, though Williamson also bears mentioning; after burning into our memories as Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” Williamson once again plays a mentally impaired man with such tender hearted conviction, it overcomes mawkishness.
A subtle but crucial touch that Washington utilizes to “open up” the play for film is the use of sound. Ambient noise is under every scene, making every outdoor scene feel authentic and not shot on a soundstage. Also, while we get to hear Marcelo Zarvos’ lovely score in full over the end credits, the music is barely used and sneaks up quietly in just a handful of scenes. The aim to make every sequence feel lifelike and not facsimile comes across. Likewise, Washington’s direction isn’t showy or remotely stylish. He chooses advantageous angles to film scenes but Charlotte Bruus Christensen, his gifted cinematographer, manages to make the film beautiful without moving the camera much.
The final moment is too much and is the only bit that feels like a misstep. Considering how powerful the scene before it is (with a generational understanding occurring between two separated siblings), the choice to end the film with a jokey visual is unfortunate. Everything that comes before it is golden.
Three and a Half Stars
–originally published in MAUIWatch