Fences: A Divide Between Good Acting and Good Filmmaking
Though one should know better than to judge a film by its cover, this tireless maxim bears repeating from time to time. A passing glance at the cover of this past year’s Best Picture-nominated film, Fences, is insufficient to presage its contents. The film’s cover, bearing a beamish Denzel Washington embracing a likewise companionable Viola Davis, prematurely warms anticipation and catapults expectation toward a soft landfall on a “feel good” flick. This comfortable landing, as the respected viewer is soon to learn, is rather abrasive upon impact. The complete, loving contentedness expressed on the cover between these two potent performers is the exception rather than the rule in this period piece.
Fences, originally penned by August Wilson, breathed its first breath as a Pulitzer Prize winning play before its subsequent maturation into a screenplay. The script was undoubtedly impressive, as Denzel not only granted his directorial auspices upon it, but his histrionic skill as well. The story details the tragically fated life and times of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) endeavoring and enduring through his disappointingly quotidian life in 1950s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a man aged slightly beyond mid-life working along his best friend, Bono, on a garbage truck. Awaiting and dotting on him in his home, is his wife Rose (Viola Davis). It must be mentioned that Troy was only able to secure his home with a government-issued indemnification for his brother Gabe’s head injury, which he sustained in the war. Also in the family is Cory, Troy’s fledging seventeen-year-old son who is bent on achieving athletic successes his father could only have imagined when he was an indignant Negro League ball player incapable of Major League opportunity.
In what could be an insouciant and pedestrian life, Troy passes the workdays riding and feeding the garbage truck’s posterior while talking to his pal, Bono. His paycheck is a pittance, however, and he is beleaguered by racially discriminatory management practices. His life is one lived continuously by the definitions of “paycheck to paycheck” and “the man getting you down”. Compounding those irritations is his thirty-year-old troubadour son who makes his reliably hebdomadal pilgrimage to Troy each payday for a charitable endowment.
Troy doesn’t despair in his job’s redundancy, accepting it as a responsibility he assumes to provide for his family. That said, he would certainly prefer to be the trash truck’s driver—a position ordinarily reserved for whites—and squeaks his wheel to bring about some employment equity. Herein lies one of the film’s shortcomings. The racial subplot reveals itself marginally and in its underdevelopment, is of little importance throughout the story. It could have been more acutely and pressingly incorporated, which might have roiled within the viewer a reason to coalesce behind and cheer for Troy in the hope he might vanquish Pittsburgh’s racist promotional practices. It was not used in this way and the racist theme quickly became submerged and nearly unidentifiable. This, as it later becomes clear, made it difficult to find a reason to root for Troy’s success in his impending obstacles.
Referring back to Bono for a moment, his character, when viewed in the little light lingering around Troy’s harrowing shadow, serves as a cleverly written antipode. His name alone arouses Spanish and French transliteration of the word “good”. Bono balances Troy’s mercurial malignity with an unconditional bonhomie. He is a simple-hearted good man in every sense as a devoted husband, ineradicable friend, and elder man welcoming the era’s changing winds. As though the viewer needed that last sentence lathered a bit more thickly, Bono, having acquiesced only recently to the inevitable, preaches to Troy that times are a-changing. Dylan sang it best, but this trope resurfaces continuously as family and friends implore Troy to recognize this and throw divest from his roguish glories of the past.
The plot intensifies as Troy becomes increasingly intransigent and prone to injuries inflicted upon both himself and the family. His son, Cory, demonstrates athletic prowess any father would be proud of. An athletic scholarship is awaiting the boy, if all goes as planned, but Troy refuses to prioritize Cory’s football potential over more despotically imposed practical responsibilities. These include finishing the yard’s fence—the physical not metaphorical one—and working an after-school job at the local A & P. Troy continuously bloviates to his son and anyone else who will lend an ear about the importance of responsibility.
Cory’s blood, once tepid and viscous under Troy’s thumb, inflames and thickens until reaching a volcanic point. Not quite in a Freudian manner, Cory lashes out in fulmination against his father, the result of building enmity between the two. No love is lost between father and son, who vie at the back-porch’s impasse for virile superiority. Troy avails, snatching his old baseball bat from Cory who raised it at Troy with temerity that quickly dissolved into timidity. Before stealing the bat, Troy invulnerably welcomed a bludgeoning (knowing he wouldn’t receive it) with the same moxie that the actor walked through L.A. streets with in Training Day.
Troy disambiguated his feelings about Cory earlier in the film, telling his son that he doesn’t care for him out of love, but instead out of a sense of paternal responsibility. This scene’s acting is equally well delivered and received. The theme raised here is one of filial piety. Cory, like any son begotten by a father, doesn’t necessarily have a responsibility to love his dad, though it certainly makes for a happy home, but the reverse does not hold true for a father loving his son. In this and the previous baseball bat scene described, Washington is flawless in his delivery. He is able to play both charismatic snake handler in one moment, lulling and comforting and recruiting the audience to his side, and unleashed viper in the next. Although one won’t notice fangs beneath his famously minatory grin, his acting range allows him to strike at any moment.
On the subject of “acting range”, it would typically be difficult to find another inhabiting the same screen with commensurate talent, but Viola Davis was ready for the task. The film’s most intense and climactic nodus occurs when Troy, the dastard he is, reveals to her character, Rose, the impending birth of a bastard to be. We know little of Troy’s inamorata, save for a brief, passing conversation about the width of her voluptuous waist. Hitherto cold in her reserve and careful not to reveal much emotion, Rose’s fury is a freshet pouring on screen when she learns of Troy’s infidelity. It is the film’s most memorable eruption and one that puts beyond question Viola Davis’s erudition and worthiness for Oscar glory.
Naturally, it is raining and thundering when Rose later awakens to learn the news of Troy’s mistress’s death during the otherwise successful childbirth. The rain and its baptismal connotation, as well as the idea of life in the midst of a storm, works here as it has in any past artistic work. Troy then commences an eerie dialogue with the infernal thunder, demanding that death stay at the other side of the fence and “wait til you’re ready for me then come over”. Again, the fence’s metaphor is put to use as a buffer between two blurred realms.
The film concludes with a touch of the ethereal. Troy continuously considered himself on death’s doorstep, which was a curious consideration in light of his age and lack of co-morbidities aside from his intermittent potations. He succumbs to death, nonetheless, six years after his daughter’s birth grinning with his baseball bat in hand unable to let go of the past.
The family reconvenes for Troy’s funeral and Cory, relieving himself of his estrangement, agrees to join in the celebration of life. Gabe arrives, trumpet pressed to his untrained lips, bellowing a strident note to the heavens above in honor of his fallen brother. All seriousness is then compromised, as the clouds retract, numinous light shines through, and like a blues call and response, heaven returns a sonorous belch. This isn’t a deus ex machina, as the situation is saved by Troy going up to heaven rather than by his coming down, but is a scene altogether unnecessary.
To conclude, a few technical comments are required here. Many plays lend themselves well to silver screen adaptation. Fences, regrettably, is not one of them. Extraordinarily well-acted though it may be, the film is lacking a cinematic quality. Much like Spotlight, a previous year’s Best Picture winner, Fences appropriately belongs on the stage and ought not to have been in Best Picture contention. The main setting, in Troy’s backyard, is incommodious and stuffy and interesting camera angles or nuanced shooting techniques were sparingly employed. It was beautifully acted, but for a film, it is infrequent and disappointing to opine the work would be better off on a theater’s stage.