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3 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
Published 3/26/17

Pittsburgh in the 1950s becomes a potent secondary character in Denzel Washington’s latest acting and directing venture in “Fences”.  Playwright August Wilson places his characters within a world where racial tension is palpable and there’s anger about injustice in employment and national sports.

Viola Davis plays Rose, the wife and mother who bears a burden of not being able to live out her own life.  She’s trapped with domestic responsibilities and a husband who does not fully realize his abusive behavior and subtle misogyny.  Denzel Washington plays her husband Troy, the breadwinner of the family who expresses bitterness about his responsibility of providing for his family.  Washington delivers convincing monologues that reflect the tough life that Troy has braved.  There’s allusion to Troy having an alcohol problem, but we never see him so inebriated that he is stumbling or incoherent.  His falling back on the bottle may symbolize an inability to deal with whatever emotional trauma happened earlier in his life.

All of the main actors appeared in the acclaimed broadway production (with the exception of Jovan Adepo as Cory).  Through their intense work to perfect those performances, they appear very natural in the film adaptation.  The story focuses on the dynamics of family life and the tension brewing between Troy and his son, as Cory is eager to assert his identity and take steps towards a career in football.

Troy discourages his son’s football dreams for reasons that have more to do with himself than his son’s possibility for athletic scholarships and success.  He fears that his son will face racism by pursuing a career in sports.

Scenes are long and drawn out, with interesting dialog, but it’s too apparent that the film is not functioning as a typical dramatic film.  Wide shots of the characters are used and we don’t get up close and personal often enough.  Other than the street, backyard, and porch scenes, there is little intimate detail that allows the viewer to get ‘lost’ in the world.  This slice of life is so confined within the family home and street, that we don’t often see the characters interacting with the outside world.

This is the 3rd film Denzel has directed, after “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters”.  “Fences” probably has the most deep source material, exploring the trials of family life and a marriage in jeopardy.  This faithful adaptation creates long scenes that don’t always have a dramatic payoff.  The story only has two climaxes, and in-between we spend everyday moments with these characters that are more fitting for the stage instead of the screen.

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