Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Fences" on film: rarely is it ever silent

Fences / Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
A holiday afternoon at the movies is always time well spent, and on the day after Christmas, my wife and I took in a matinee of "Fences," directed by and starring Denzel Washington and also starring Viola Davis. It is a tour-de-force adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play written by the late August Wilson.

Set in the late 1950s, "Fences" is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle." It's a family drama about a former Negro League baseball hero (played by Washington) whose personal bitterness over being slighted by the Major Leagues prevents his son from accepting a college football scholarship.

"Fences" is very much dialogue-driven and both Washington (whose character Troy is described by The New York Times as "a chop-busting raconteur") and Davis (as Troy's "plain-spoken counterpoint" wife, Rose) give powerhouse performances that are worthy of Academy Award consideration.

Fences / A play by August Wilson
After returning home from seeing "Fences," I wanted to find out more about the movie. Among the things I learned was that one of the key challenges for Washington as director was how to transform a play that takes place entirely in the front yard of "an ancient two-story brick house" in Pittsburgh, as Wilson described it, and make it come alive on film. Wilson is also credited with penning the screenplay. "The words are August's'; where we did them is different," Washington explained, in an interview with The New York Times. In the movie, there are interior scenes in the kitchen, living room and master bedroom, and some exterior scenes in the neighborhood streets.

"Beneath the bombast," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, "'Fences' has an aching poetry." By turns, the film is both funny and provocative, and it is also inspiring and hurtful. Rarely is it ever silent. If it is possible to close your eyes and just listen to "Fences," you would be treated to a dramatic literary experience that is rarely matched.

In Washington's portrayal of the central character Troy, a sanitation worker, first embodied on the Broadway stage by James Earl Jones in 1985, Scott wrote: "There is plenty of brag and bluster in his speech, as well as flecks of profanity (editor's note: there's a lot of use of the N-word) and poetry. He tells tales and busts chops with unflagging energy, at times testing the patience of Rose, Bono and his other friends and relations. But mostly Troy, who makes no secret of his illiteracy, uses language as a tool of analysis, a way of explaining what's on his mind and figuring out the shape of the world he must inhabit."

Fortunately for movie-goers, "Fences" goes beyond being just a filmed reading. We are treated to Wilson's genius for dialogue and his examination of the African-American experience in America "from the standpoint of people intent on defying their exclusion from it," as Scott describes it.

For me, "Fences" was both a remarkable learning – and looking-glass – experience into what it must have been like being black in America in the 1950s, as well as an opportunity to study and appreciate both the brilliance of playwright Wilson and the quality of the acting performances given by Washington and Davis.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

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