Denzel Washington is clearly one of the best actors we have ever had, African-American or otherwise. Whether it has been in serious, sober-minded films like GLORY, MALCOLM X, and COURAGE UNDER FIRE, or explosive action films like CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE, and UNSTOPPABLE, Washington has given all of himself, and then some. And then, like more than a few great actors, he also itched to get behind, as well as in front of, the camera as a director, which he did in 2002 with ANTWONE FISHER, and again in 2007 with THE GREAT DEBATERS. He does double duty again for one of the most insightful and true films of 2016, FENCES.
Scripted by noted playwright August Wilson from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, FENCES stars Washington as an average Joe-type sanitation worker in late 1950s Pittsburgh dealing with the world at large. He had been a baseball player once before World War II, but it never amounted to much; and when one of his sons (Jovan Adepo) wants to get into football while going to college, Washington tries to steer him away, managing only to alienate his son further than he already is. Washington does have a good friend in Mr. Bono (Stephen Henderson), but he is still troubled by a dark park of himself, one that threatens the eighteen-year marriage between him and his wife Rose (Viola Davis).
Adapting stage plays to the screen is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to do, because what works on a stage needs a great deal to transfer it to a movie, and a real, breathing set. Fortunately, Washington found a way of making it happen by filming in a part of Pittsburgh that seems not to have changed all that much from the way it must have looked in the actual time that FENCES is set. Wilson's stage play and screenplay are full of language and slang that is very right for the times, and, yes, this does include a profuse use of the 'N' word. But a certain amount of uncomfortable language is what is necessary for a story like this, especially given that it involves not only Washington on both sides of the camera, but also another hugely superb performance by Davis as his wife, who manages to somehow stand by her man despite the horrible secret he reveals near the end. Equally fine in supporting roles are Adepo and Henderson, as well as Mykelti Williamson as a former war buddy of his whose mind isn't right because of a severe head wound suffered in the war, and Russell Hornsby as Washington's son by an earlier marriage who constantly comes to his dad on payday for ten-dollar loans.
Though it is an African-American cast and story, FENCES works because it feels universal, and it is a story that could happen in any family, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. Washington and Wilson (who passed away in 2005, and thus never saw FENCES make it to the big screen) make this very clear but in a non-heavy-handed way, and with dialogue scenes that are often long but never dull, earning it justifiable and favorable comparisons to Arthur Miller's classic "Death Of A Salesman".
All of these elements make FENCES easily one of the best films of 2016, and a sure-fire winner likely to be regarded as a classic in a very short time.
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