In "Fences" Denzel Washington plays Troy – a bitter, self-centred and selfish man in his mid-fifties who loves the sound of his own voice. They say "empty vessels make the most noise" and here is a case in point. Set in the early fifties, race plays a strong card in every aspect of life, and Troy feels betrayed by a failed baseball career that – in his eyes at least – looked over his skills to the colour of his skin. But Troy is also a stubborn cuss, and refuses to acknowledge that even in the 50's "The times they are a changing'". His cussedness puts him on a collision course with his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), given his aspirations for a college football scholarship, and his mother (Viola Davis, "The Help") tries to keep the peace between the two of them.
This is a film primarily about resistance to change. All those changes in the outside world are on the 'other side of the fence' that Troy habitually tries to finish but never seems to put his mind to. Fences keep things out; but they also keep things in, and Troy is in a cocoon of his own making. He justifies his actions as a 'family provider' with lengthy speeches but ultimately they deliver hollow words and assertions that don't stand up to scrutiny.
This is a pressure cooker of family life that is primed to blow, and a revelation (which I didn't see coming) sets that fuse alight.
This is a film worth watching for the acting performances of Denzel Washington and (particularly) Viola Davis, winner of the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA and a strong contender for the Oscar. Both give assured performances, although Troy is such an instantly dis- likable and pitiable character that I could feel my emotions influencing my judgement about his performance.
But this is also a strong ensemble cast, with Mykelti Williamson (famously appearing as Bubba of the 'Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory' fame) being effective as Troy's disabled brother and English-born Jovan Adepo being particularly impressive in an extremely assured feature debut.
However, the Broadway roots of the piece are highly visible with 98% of the film set either in the back yard, in the house, or on the front steps (the set could clearly rotate!). For such a claustrophobic topic, this is perhaps apt. But as a feature film I longed for the action to go elsewhere. The film version of the story – with a few tweaks to the screenplay – has lots of opportunities for this, but these are never taken. This makes the whole piece feel 'worthy but dull'. In particular, anyone looking for a useful tutorial on fence building needs to look elsewhere!
As for the recent "Moonlight" there is also excessive use of the "N" word and other outdated racial references that have the potential to offend.
Good luck to Viola Davis and Denzel Washington (who also directed this) for their Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor Oscars nominations. But "Best Film" Oscar? No, I don't think so. In truth this is a film that I will struggle to remember or get excited about in a month's time and it will not be on my re-watch list.
(This review was written just prior to the 2017 Oscars. For the graphical version, and to comment, please visit bob-the-movie- man.com).
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