"You can't be nobody but who you are Troy. That's all you've got to measure yourself against the world out there."
There are few actors about whom you could say have never been bad in anything. Denzel Washington is one of those actors. This is not to say every film he’s been in has been good because there have been some failures amidst his filmography. But every time he steps in front of a camera I’ve never felt I could point to him and say he was acting badly. Quite often he does not get a film that can match the quality of his acting, so I suppose it only makes sense that he would eventually take matters into his own hands and direct one.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) makes his living as a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh where he resides with his wife (Viola Davis) and son (Jovan Adepo). Maxson once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but was deemed too old when the major leagues began admitting black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity, Troy creates further tension in his family when he squashes his son's chance to meet a college football recruiter.
Having played the role of Troy Maxson on Broadway for a number of years Denzel Washington is undoubtedly passionate about bringing August Wilson’s play to life. Due to relying so heavily on dialogue and such little movement. Not would only would it take a skilled director who could make the stage play translate into film effectively and a monumentally talented set of actors who could handle the emotionally driven drama. ‘Fences’ certainly has one of those aspects, and hints of the other.
See, the natural issue of translating a stage play to the screen is that directors are often tempted to open up the play which often ruins the fabric of the screenplay. However at the same time one expects a director to be able to utilize the unique components of film to breathe new life into the original script. This is what makes a play like ‘Fences’ particularly difficult to translate, the dialogue heavy script so best suited to enclosed locations, almost revelling in how repetitive it is from scene to scene due to routines and environments being two of the films thematic undertones. Usually those are themes not best suited to the big screen.
While Washington’s direction does not quite alleviate some of these aspects or necessarily make them as engaging as they could be (though I have to wonder if any director could really) he does a brilliant job of accentuating the performances and dialogue as well as well as how his composition, framing and editing are frequently employed pitch perfectly to create a terrific sense of atmosphere from scene to scene. At times the characters appear to be dwarfed by the environment around them but at others Washington focusses his camera so tightly to his actors that it is downright claustrophobic.
It’s also a wise decision to maintain a close look at his actors because they are truly exceptional. Obviously he is directing himself in this instance but it would appear that Washington is more than capable of multi-tasking. His performance is a towering one, with astonishing levels of gravitas and commanding tones. The character comes with weaknesses and assets aplenty, but Washington never shies away from displaying either of them in full force. Troy not only feels like an embodiment of ideals or social groups, but fully fleshed out man who is deeply flawed but also painfully relatable. We empathise with him to an extent that we are heartbroken at his mistakes.
It is just as well that Washington has a counterpart of equal bravado to match him in the intense scenes. This is in the form of Viola Davis as Troy’s wife Rose. Like her on screen husband, Davis brings a truly haw dropping level of power to her role. When she unleashes all of her emotion at a later point in the film it is devastatingly painful to witness and is enough to break most people down on its own. But the fact that she and Washington work so well together as a happily married couple makes their fall into bitterness and hatred even more impactful. What makes them particularly refreshing though it that it reaches a level of such intensity and high emotion that it transcends that sense of Oscar baiting. Rather than feel like two actors giving an awards worthy performance, Davis and Washington capture a slice of life unlike anyone else has this year. What we are witnessing on screen are two real people, and not for a second di I think any differently.
But as director, Washington knows what his other most powerful weapon is here and that is the script itself. Essentially a word for word translation of the play by August Wilson, ‘Fences’ never obscures or overlooks the genius of its own writing. The direction effectively brings it to the front and centre and leaves it for the audience to see. It carries strong, complex and independently formed characters but at the same time uses them to represent wider social issues. It carries such strong thematic undertones that are universally accessible. It’s not about the married people or the African-American people, it’s about everyone.
Washington’s best directorial outing yet, accompanied by one of his strongest performances that along with Davis brings Wilson’s play to life as a breathing, living entity of flesh and blood.