Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)

Denzel goes all-in on his performance of an oversized, talkative, opinionated garbage collector and family man who speaks mainly in baseball metaphors. I wondered near the beginning why his wife Viola Davis, who barely gets a word in, was getting awards talk for this. Then after Denzel grabs a couple of major personal victories – demanding and winning a promotion from his employer, and succeeding in crushing his son’s dreams of playing football – he reveals that he’s gotten another woman pregnant. And after that woman dies in childbirth, the long-suffering Viola steps up. “This child got a mother, but you a womanless man.” So for the second time in a row (Blackhat: “Am I being tangible… Gary?”) Viola has the year’s best line delivery.

The movie retains most of the cast from a recent stage production – and you can tell it’s based on a stage production. M. D’Angelo explains better than I can:

Really hammers home the fundamental difference between theater and cinema, showing that the difficulty in translation is more than just a matter of “staginess.” Washington uses the camera expressively, in an appropriately subdued way; every shot and cut has been carefully thought out, accentuating the performances while giving full weight to the environment surrounding them … Formally, this is very much a film. Nonetheless, it still feels like a play, because Wilson’s magnificent, musical dialogue is expressly designed for that particular medium.

Denzel’s best friend since his prison days (long story) and his trashman coworker until Denzel’s promotion leaves him behind is Stephen Henderson (a church guy in Red Hook Summer). Denzel and Viola’s high-school son is Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) and Denzel’s older son, a jazz musician, is Russell Hornsby (Grimm and Eater). His highly symbolic trumpeter brother Gabriel with a plate in his head from WWII is Mykelti Williamson (Don King in Ali). Set in the mid-1950’s with an early 60’s postscript after the shell-of-his-former-self Denzel has passed away and the family reunites for his funeral.

I appreciate Ehrlich’s continuation of the baseball metaphors: “If Fences doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, it’s still a clutch double at a time when black stories are struggling to even get on base.”

Troy is at once both a disposable member of the underclass and a category five hurricane of humanity. His only way of reconciling those two wildly different feelings is to transmute his deficiencies and regrets into the stuff of myth — he might be the picture of the American everyman, but he’s also locked in a duel with Death, itself.

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