One of the most common cultural references synonymous with American society, is that of the white picket fence. The ideal of the close-knit family with the doting housewife and cozy home became the perfect "pick me up" in the post-war 1950s. But as we all know, this concept of Americana was primarily enjoyed by the white families. In "Fences" therefore - Denzel Washington's screen adaptation of the acclaimed August Wilson play - we are reminded that for African-Americans, the white picket fence was but a dream.
The illusion of that dream is one that is certainly known to the Maxsons, a blue collar African-American family living in 1950s Pittsburgh. The Maxsons comprise Troy (Denzel Washington), Rose (Viola Davis) and their sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby). As the patriarch, the American dream has taunted Troy for years, after his ambitions of being a professional baseball player were spurned due to racism. Now working as a garbage collector, he struggles to make ends meet and find purpose in his life. His love for his supportive wife and his similarly ambitious youngest son keeps him going however. But the torments of his past and present threaten to tear his life apart.
And with that, we get a quintessential story of the black experience in America. The burden of the struggle weighs heavily on Troy's shoulders, making him hardened and resentful. And that attitude causes much of the film's central conflicts. Indeed, his relationship with his sons is the epitome of "tough love". But just as the black experience is often defined by struggle, it is also known for perserverance. And Wilson certainly captured that in his brilliant script (a contender for Best Adapted Screenplay).
"Fences" is truly as eloquent as it gets, featuring lengthy monologues that cut deep like a powerful sermon. In particular, the role of Troy is easily one of the most demanding of the year, not only because of the sheer volume of spoken words, but also the paranoia, depression, bitterness and joy underlying every utterance. In the hands of Denzel Washington however, it's clear to see why he won the Tony Award for the stage version and is probably heading for another Best Actor win at the Oscars. He breathes life into this tremendously flawed character, making him recognizable and even sympathetic (no easy feat considering his trifling ways).
Indeed, although Washington's direction is hamstrung by the film's obvious stage roots, he and the rest of his ensemble provide the fireworks with their acting. As the dignified "mama bear" fighting for her family, Viola Davis is utterly heartbreaking in a role that bears similarities to her breakout performance in "Doubt". She is surely heading for another Best Supporting Actress nomination, and possibly a win. Speaking of breakout performances, you'll want to remember the name Jovan Adepo. This young actor more than holds his own among these veterans. His conversations with Washington provide some of the film's most memorable scenes (the film's title refers to the fence they build together), as the pair go toe to toe like boxers. And with less screen time, Russell Hornsby is a bona fide scene stealer as Cory's older brother. Furthermore, Stephen Henderson (as Troy's close friend and co-worker Jim) and Mykelti Williamson (Troy's brother) also do fine work in this deep bench of acting talent.
Ultimately, it's this combination of strong writing and masterful performances that makes "Fences" so effective. Though I would say the filmmaking is stripped down to a fault, I understand why voters would want to celebrate Denzel Washington with Best Director nominations on the awards circuit. To get performances this powerful, he must be doing something right. Indeed, Washington has crafted a film that is touching and poignant. And it would make a respectable Best Picture nominee come January.