Fences (PG). Director: Denzel Washington. Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson. 139 minutes
The Academy, it seems, has listened. After the #whiteoscars furore of past years, three of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture — Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures — are films with predominantly (if not entirely) Black casts, and explicitly focused on the experiences of Black characters. Cast and crewmembers from all three films have been nominated in various categories (Ruth Negga has also been nominated for her lead role in Jeff Nichols' interracial romance drama Loving).
To be fair, all three films would have demanded attention, with or without the recent controversy around awards season racial bias. Of the three, Moonlight is the strongest, elevated by the singularity of its vision, its subtlety, elegance and devastating emotional honesty. Hidden Figures, while telling a great story, is the weakest of the trio, both theatrically and as a treatment of the experiences of Black Americans (for reasons we will explore in more detail in this column next week).
Which leaves Fences, a tour de force for director and star Denzel Washington. It doesn't attain the creative heights of Moonlight, but is a formidable piece of work. This is due in no small part to its impressive pedigree. It is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning, 1985 play by August Wilson, utilising a screenplay written by the playwright prior to his death in 2005. It transplants much of the cast, including Washington, from the play's 2010, ten-time Tony-nominated Broadway revival.
Washington is no stranger to Oscar night glory, having won in 2001 for Training Day, an award that was considered by many to be an acknowledgement of his accumulated body of work, as much as for his performance in that particular film. In Fences Washington gives his bombastic talents in front of the camera their most impressive workout in years. Working with Wilson's towering, dizzyingly poetic dialogue he crafts a performance that is complex and compelling (dare we say 'Oscar-worthy').
It needs to be, for Troy, the loquacious, tortured figure at the centre of Fences, is a frequently unsympathetic character. He's a one-time, would-be baseball star, who now, at the age of 53, is marking time and hauling garbage on the outskirts of 1950s Pittsburgh. Racial segregation was, he claims, responsible for keeping him out of the Major League. As the film progresses and the details of his life unfold through the dialogue, we see the course of his life was not so neatly determined.
"Rose seems increasingly doubtful that her chosen husband Troy, his pains and pontificating notwithstanding, is in fact a good man."
Wrong choices and missed opportunities, as much as social injustices, have embittered Troy to the world. Even as he boasts — lyrically and jocularly — about the time he wrestled Death into submission, or the bargain he made to keep the Devil at bay, we see how heavily both figures still weigh on him. The prime targets for his bitterness are his sons, struggling musician Lyons (Hornsby) and wannabe football star Cory (Adepo), who are made to suffer for their father's inadequacies in the guise of tough love.
Frequently by his side are his friend Bono (Henderson), who does his best to keep him honest; and Rose (Davis), Troy's long-suffering wife. Davis, like Washington, won a Tony for the role on Broadway, and has been nominated for an Oscar here. She brings palpable strength and dignity to Rose's progression from stolid support for Troy to near breaking point in the face of a new betrayal. She seems increasingly doubtful that her chosen husband Troy, his pains and pontificating notwithstanding, is in fact a good man.
As director, Washington captures all of this with simplicity and grace. With cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen he delineates the physical spaces of the characters' home lives; the spartan rooms and ragged backyard of their suburban home. It's just stagey enough to give the emotionally and psychologically robust performances space to unspool, within the technical confines of cinema; and for Wilson's dialogue to sing, every syllable of which is a treat, thrumming with import, and portent.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.