The Films of 2016: Fences

A movie need not reinvent the medium in order to be great, and a filmmaker need not dazzle us with visual flair in order to achieve his effects.  For every Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock busily rearranging the building blocks of film grammar there is a William Wyler, a Mike Nichols, a Mia Hansen-Løve or an Andrew Haigh, working steadily and quietly to observe the simple movements of everyday people and places.  Denzel Washington is a director who belongs in the latter camp; his new film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning play Fences is one of the finest accomplishments of this year, even if it looks modest and unassuming.  At a time when well-written realistic dramas about and for adult people are almost nowhere to be found at the box office, the mere existence of this film is extraordinary.  Washington’s Fences is a graceful and effortless mounting of a superb and eloquently humane text, achieved without any needless dressing-up or vulgar concessions to the perceived tastes of the movie-going public.  Its strength lies in its simplicity, its solidity, and its conviction. 

Washington’s film effectively preserves nearly all of the performances of the 2010 stage revival of the play, from Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles to Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby in supporting roles.  There is not a single weak link in the cast, every member of which breathes life, humor, pathos, and music (sometimes literally) into Wilson’s dialogue.  The characters, an extended family of lower-middle class black Americans living in 1950s Pittsburgh, speak in a vernacular rhythm that’s ever so slightly heightened for the purposes of the drama that Wilson sets about building.  These include Troy Maxson (Washington), a lowly garbage collector resentful of his failure to make a better life for himself and his family; his wife Rose (Davis), who does her best to manage his volatile moods while harboring some resentments of her own; and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who sees a football scholarship to college as a way to a better future for himself.  The characters are occasionally given to speechifying; but the speeches are so well written, and so beautifully acted, that they play like arias—grand and soaring. 

The filmmaking in Fences hangs back so that the actors have room to flex their muscles.  This is a film driven by its characters and consequently by the ensemble of performers who interpret them.  Where Washington dials back as a director, he goes big as an actor; his Troy Maxson is virtuosic, as flamboyant and scary a performance as any he’s ever given.  At first I was worried that the film’s tempo would move too fast, with every line coming fast on the heels of the previous one.  So I was relieved to find the movie relax after its breathless first scene, settling into a more natural gait that matches that of Wilson’s dialogue.  The film’s most sublime moments are not its crescendos but its diminuendos.  Viola Davis, for example—for whose performance she will likely win her first Oscar, and deservedly so—is at her best not when she’s sounding her loud notes (as in a pivotal fight scene midway through the film) but when she goes quiet.  In an extraordinary monologue at the end of the film Rose attempts to give Cory, now a grown man, some account of her marriage to his father.  In its quietness, Davis’s delivery of that speech as staggering as anything I’ve seen an actor do on screen this year.  Such are the merits of Fences, a film that reminds us of how little—and how much—it takes to make first-rate cinema.

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