Since Gene Hackman, my favorite actor , retired a dozen years ago, he has been replaced in my esteem by another American actor who embodies the potential of everyman in dramatic situations. I first saw Denzel Washington in a comedy with George Segal as his father, back in the very early 1980s. The movie was “Carbon Copy” and it was not very good but Denzel was. Since then, he has won two Academy Awards and starred in a string of box office successes that would please any acting career. Earlier this year he appeared in a remake of “The Magnificent Seven”, which was solid if not spectacular. He has now directed himself in his third film as a director, the screen version of the August Wilson play, “Fences”.
As a director, Denzel has stuck closely to the boundaries of a stage play. There are one or two moments that move the scenes beyond where most of the play is set, but the vast majority of the film still is located in the kitchen and the backyard of his character Troy Maxson. The play addresses issues of black life in the first half of the last century. Troy is a man who has turned himself around from a thug in his teen years to a responsible adult in middle age, but he has deep resentments against the society that restricted his potential because of the color of his skin, and like all of us, he has difficulty escaping the shadow of his own family. As a consequence, we see that he is a stern father while being a loving husband. His views of family are solid but he also has some strong views on masculinity that threaten the peaceful life he has found and they undermine the progress that he has made.
The script is by the playwright himself, so it is no surprise that the dialogue sounds like the words of a play. Even though the dialect and slang are of a particular culture and time, the words sometimes sound so complete in their sentences, that you might wonder who the characters are cribbing from. What plays on the stage often works because we are so willing to suspend our disbelief due to the context. In a film, I think audiences expect things to play out a little more naturalistically. Characteres talk over one another in films, actions take place in the background, visuals drive our interest in the story. A play requires turn taking to be able to follow what is being said, the scenes are set in locations that are not likely to have wild visuals that draw our eye because the focus is supposed to be on the characters. There is nothing wrong with the story here, and the performances are top notch, but the film never moves or feels like real life, it feels like a play.
The dialogue however is a joy to listen to when it is being delivered by consummate professionals like Denzel and his co-star Viola Davis. The two leads are convincing as a long married couple at odds over the life of their teenage son, and the crisis that raises it’s head in the second act. Mr. Washington has the right degree of belligerence and resignation in his voice. When events are against him, he gets his dander up and spouts off like a man certain of his position. When faced with his own failings however, he becomes truculent and the warmth that he often displayed along with a good deal of humor becomes sullenness that is not very appealing. Viola Davis is the most supportive partner a man could have, and at times she seems to be the most powerful force in her husbands life. When Rose is confronted with Troy’s weakness, she is defiant herself, but ustimately becomes a passive force for good. Davis meets both challenges directly and she will probably win the award she deserved back in 2011 for “The Help”.
Steven Henderson, who had a small one scene role in “Manchester by the Sea”, a film I saw earlier this week, has a much more substantial part here. As Troy’s oldest friend, he provides wise counsel that largely gets ignored. He is the voice of the audience, yelling for Troy to try to think about an issue in another way, but who ultimately understands the intransigence of his friend. Having played the part on Broadway, he seems to have the relationship mastered. Mykelti Williamson has played a variety of roles over the years. He was memorable as the stony Elliston Limehouse in the TV series “Justified”. As Troy’s combat injured brother with reduced mental capacity, he seems to be repeating his most famous role as Bubba Blue in “Forrest Gump”. Denzel the director must be aware of the similarity of the characters, and while Williamson does a good job, the comparison is going to linger over the performance and that seems to be a shame.
I don’t want to sound down on the film. I thought it was well made and there were a couple of nice things the director added to the mix. The golden gate that Saint Peter is manning was nicely visualized, and the use of old murals in the city buildings added some texture to the story. This is a film worthy for the performances and the dialogue. If you are unlikely to ever see the play that the movie is based on, by all means check this out. If you are a theater person, expect a very familiar and comfortable experience. As a film, it is a little talky and workmanlike in it’s visualizations.