Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE LION IN WINTER: a review of "Fences"

Screenplay Written by August Wilson based upon his play
Directed by Denzel Washington
**** (four stars)

Denzel Washington is a national treasure!!

Honestly, who knew? Who knew back in the days when Washington was a cast member upon television's "St. Elsewhere" (1982-1988) and even moreso within his feature film debut in the unfortunate so-called racial satire, Director Michael Schultz's "Carbon Copy" (1981)--yes, I actually did see that movie--that inside housed a figure that would become one of the finest actors we woud ever be blessed to witness.

Certainly, he has charisma and unquestionable star power to burn--something he showcased from the very beginning. But, the depth, that transformative power, the blind siding force he would unearth time and again? I don't know about you, but back then, I never saw it coming yet once it hit me, it never let go, for what Denzel Washington has been able to achieve when he is working at his finest, the fullest of his powers, are performances that feel so lived in, so inside out that they feel to extend beyond mere performance and almost exist as channeling! Trust me, dear readers, if you have not seen Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), do yourself a favor and see one of the finest screen performances of all time--I would not steer you wrong with this one--that man should've won five Oscars for that work!

Now all of that being said, I have housed some criticism for Washington in recent years, some of which has been written upon this blogsite. Now there hasn't been anything approaching scathing if memory serves but I have been critical of some of his choices in recent years, which have leaned more heavily upon one sort of two-fisted action film or another and more often than not, films that clearly are not as razor sharp as I would assume Denzel Washington actually is within his real life. While I am certainly not within the position to begrudge Washington's professional choices, it is just when I feel his choices are beneath his immense talent that I tend to bristle.

With "Fences," Denzel Washington's third directorial effort after the strong "Antwone Fisher" (2002) and "The Great Debaters" (2007), as well as his adaptation of the the late August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award wining play (in which Washington starred on Broadway in the 2010 revival), Washington once again emerges and arrives as an unrepentant force of nature with a towering performance that is blistering to behold. Perfectly, the film which he has helmed is equal to his talents in front of the camera. Denzel Washington the director is not a visual stylist by any means and yet, there is no reason for him to become one when the humanity of the piece is the star, the heart, the soul and the intense focus onto which Washington places his considerable energies. "Fences" is a triumph, a powerhouse, an emotional steamroller that explores a certain slice of life with equal measures of empathy and intensity.

Set in Pittsburgh during the 1950's, "Fences" stars Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a 53 year old failed baseball player and waste collector who lives with his wife Rose (an outstanding Viola Davis--reprising her role in the 2010 Broadway revival) and who works alongside his best friend Jim Bono (an excellent Stephen McKinley Henderson).

In the neighborhood also lives Troy's mentally impaired brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), injured during World War II, teased by the local children, filled with all manner of Biblical allegory and who often visits Troy and Rose. Additionally, Troy is wrestling with the combative nature of his respective relationships with his sons, the adult Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous marriage, and now a struggling musician, and the teenage Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player with hopes of attending college, much to Troy's intense chagrin.

As Troy pursues a hopeful promotion at work while also confronting the future desires of Cory which run in conflict with his own wishes for his younger son, Troy rages against a world and life he fears has completely passed him by as the pains, choices and consequences of his past and present collide to create a potentially even more turbulent future.

In many ways, Denzel Washington's "Fences" serves as a companion piece to something like Arthur Miller's enduring, devastating classic Death Of A Salesman, but in this case, and keeping in lockstep with August Wilson's source material, "Fences" is fully representative of the African-American experience during the 1950's. Yet Washington wisely and often, ferociously devises of moments, scenes and dialogue designed to mirror the past and present day trials and tribulations of African-American life towards each other.  As previously stated, Washington's visual style is tempered and purposefully un-flashy, a technique that leaves all of the fireworks in Wilson's stunning, luxurious dialogue and of course, the excellent and exhausting performances by the film's entire cast.

Utilizing a series of Biblical, athletic and most certainly, the building and presence of a backyard fence as allegories and metaphors, "Fences" vibrantly illustrates the inner turmoil of Troy Maxson blasting outwards as he rallies against what he perceives as life's indignities--whether real or imagined--and all the while showcasing his inability to look beyond himself and his own desires regarding issues of justice and fairness.

In an odd way, Troy Maxson reminded me a little bit of Jackie Gleason's classic character Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners," albeit in a more tragic capacity. As with Kramden, Troy Maxson carries an outsized personality, or better yet, an outsized public persona that clearly over-compensates for his deeply run insecurities, faults, and desperate failings.

On full pubic view, Troy Maxson is the definition of boisterous. His voice, easily the loudest in the room, dominates all conversations as he spins one tale after another in what feels like a rapid fire stream of consciousness that also feels purposefully designed to continuously hold court to a nearly impenetrable degree. His body language is all swagger as he literally prowls through his domain conveying his self-presented immense physical strength as well as a sexual voraciousness towards Rose, as no man could ever love, and therefore, satisfy his wife as greatly and as completely as Troy Maxson. Even his tall tales are the stuff of ancient blues songs and mythologies, the man who tangled with the Grim Reaper and won and is forever ready for the re-match. And still, all of this behavior is skin deep as his bottomless rage sits immediately below the surface, ready to boil over in a moment's notice.

Whenever Lyons comes to visit on Friday evening's--that is, payday, course, Troy loudly bristles with the knowledge that Lyons is undoubtedly standing in his living room ready to ask for a financial h and out. Yet, once Lyons returns one evening to pay him back, the gesture runs completely against Troy's pre-conceived notions of the man Lyons actually is (or better yet, the man Lyons hopes for himself to be).

On a greater level, yes Troy was denied a potentially life changing opportunity to pursue his passion for professional baseball, but he is steadfast in his inability to admit to himself that his denial was most likely due to his age (as he was 30 years old at the time) and not his race. Because of this, he admonishes and denigrates the color barrier breaking accomplishment of none other than Jackie Robinson, proclaiming himself to being a better baseball player than Robinson could ever hope for himself to be. Troy's rage at the failed outcome of his professional sports career is indeed eating him alive and threatens to destroy the relationship with his younger son, Cory, whose own athletic achievements threaten to eclipse Troy's. But a little more on that subject in a bit...

Troy Maxson is a figure always looking for the greener grass and never the while realizing that the metaphorical grass in question is never greener, therefore he is never able to fully appreciate the achievements he has made or just how good he actually has it, with all obstacles existing as self-imposed. Regarding his career, his questioning of why Black employees always ride on the back of the garbage truck while the White employees are all able to drive the truck plays out in a surprising manner, from the actual outcome of his inquiries to the overall effect it has upon his relationship with Bono as well as himself. But since a career as a garbage man, a figure within the community who is able to provide for his family doesn't compare with the glory of fame and fortune through a baseball career,

Troy Maxson roars against any and all who have it better than himself, to those who have been given opportunities that have passed him by, to successes that others have received but not himself. To that regard, Troy Maxson is a figure that I believe that anyone within the working class of the past and/or present, and even regardless of race and gender, would and could easily relate with. Furthermore, I would even think that Troy Maxson is a character that really any of us could possibly identify with because we have all at one point or another lamented against our own losses and disappointments, especially when confronted with the successes of others. The problem with Troy is that he chooses to not realize any of his mistakes or when he does realize, it is too late and even then, Troy will somehow spin the situation to where he is perpetually the individual who has been wronged, ultimately continuing to fuel his rage against the world and even his family.

The painfully honest Father/son tensions as depicted in "Fences" possessed some moments which uncomfortably took me back to periods within my own life when I clashed with my own Father over our respective expectations and world-views. I think back to fights filled with brutally painful words and actions, and I am so very thankful that both of us have long regretted those times, times that have since been long forgiven for the betterment of our relationship as we age. Yet, for Troy and Cory, their tensions may prove themselves to becoming irrevocable as Troy's shadow looms so powerfully large, and Cory grows increasingly determined to step out from underneath it. With respect to the physically and psychologically damaged Gabe, he tiptoes around Troy almost in fear. And as for Rose, she is also forced to face her own choices and consequences regarding the life she wishes to have combined with the woman she perceives herself to be alongside who she still wishes to become, even within middle age.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are a formidable dream team, each eliciting performances that are honest, painful and devoid of any sense of Oscar baiting techniques although it would be a cinematic crime if these two performances were not two of the most heralded of the year. Washington in particular is majestic to regard as, utilizing an athletic metaphor, he is operating at the top of his game. He is clearly thrilled to have a character, story and dialogue of such caliber and quality at his disposal, as he roars through the many extended monologues with relish, fury and a sheer velocity, that forces us to keep up with the variety of changes in tenor, inflection and tonality. Just astounding.

Viola Davis, by contrast, and aside from one powerhouse of a scene, showcases her strength, dignity and even her own well worn flaws and regrets with a quieter more internalized pain and frustration that keeps your eyes and ears riveted towards her, especially when Washington is blasting through scenes. She fully transcends the caricature of the long suffering wife by creating a figure who functions as a full, living, breathing, three dimensional human being whose emotions and actions speaks to the role of African American women of the past and present with tremendous empathy and grit.

Denzel Washington's "Fences" is a veritable steamroller of a film that serves as an intimate family drama, a simultaneous ad sumptuously detailed celebration/lament for the life and existence of the African America neighborhood and at its core a blistering character study of a man who feels that he is single-handedly against the world yet he is always right and still contends to being so even when he is spectacularly wrong to a punishing degree. The skill, texture, command, humor, immense heart and full bloodedness of the material makes for outstanding adult drama and provocative cinema and it completely deserves your complete attention and it is easily one of 2016's strongest efforts.

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