Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is Denzel Washington’s look at the struggles of a mid-class African American family in the 1950s, Fences.
Directed by Denzel Washngton
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Russell Hornsby
Plot: A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.
Yesterday when reviewing the Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, I took issue with being a great true story without much filmmaking merit to back it up. Oddly enough, Fences falls into similar territory although under different circumstances and with a much better outcome.
For a little backstory on the film, it is based off the 1983 play by famed playwright August Wilson. In 2010, Denzel Washington starred in a Broadway revival of the play with many of the same cast that appears in this film. Washington then decided to bring the play to life with himself also serving as director, as well as once again starring in the lead role, and based off a screenplay written by August Wilson himself. Obviously all those involved are very familiar with the material and have great admiration for it which has lead to what is by all accounts a faithful adaption of the play. Faithful to a fault in many cases.
When it’s all said and done, the film is basically a play with more angles. Despite the production details and a few more locations added in, it’s hard to see what this movie is doing differently than any stage production. The simplicity of it as a film is even distracting at times as I was taken out of the moment on several occasions by how much it just felt like a play. And with actors who have performed the material so often, I must admit the exchanges of dialogue at times felt rehearsed. It’s a movie that really has no reason for being a movie. These actors could have stages on more show and there would be little difference. But here’s the thing, I’ve never seen these actors perform this play.
The fact is that this material and this cast is so good that it’s enough to recommend. The film’s success owes so much to Wilson’s amazing writing. The film is largely extended scenes of people having conversations. Sometimes they are friendly, playful conversations and sometimes they are tense, combative conversations, but the dialogue is always poetic in how it flows from idea to idea. Each conversation has it’s own arc, always building and building to a point you cannot predict but which seems organic. It’s a pleasure to listen to. And as good as the writing is, in the hands of the wrong cast, it would fall flat. This is the right cast. This is one of Washington’s best performance out of a long career of great performances. He wears the bitterness of his character in each scene like a suit of armor that he thinks is protecting him but is actually weighting him down. It’s amazing how well he can make us believe that this man is feared within his home, yet has enough charm and warmth in there to keep you from wondering how he has a family at all. Then there’s Viola Davis who just commands this movie with an incredibly solid performance. She plays much on the film in a subdued state of battling between loving and hating her husband, but in one explosive scene she owns the whole movie with unforgettable and true emotion. The rest of the cast kind of fall to the side of these two giants, but they are all nice additions. Mykelti Williamson has a bit of a thankless role as one of these characters with an unspecified mental disability that we see far too often, but he carries the burden well.
So the movie is far from perfect and there’s a real question as to if it should even be a movie, but I was nonetheless affected by the material and its wonderful cast. I will say that while the epilogue has its moments, it’s a largely ineffective conclusion to the story and the final note in particular lands with a very hollow thud. Should it be a Best Picture nominee? No, there are more deserving films from last year and this barely feels like a film to be honest. However, the acting nominations for Washington and Davis are very deserved indeed. All said, if you were lucky enough to see the production of this play with this cast, then there’s nothing new to see here, but if you’re unfamiliar with the material, chances are the film will leave you with some powerful moments if not an satisfied viewing overall.