Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Grade: A-
Director:  Denzel Washington
Written by: August Wilson based on his play
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney, Jovan Adepo
Screened at: AMC Lincoln Sq., NYC, 11/19/16
Opens: December 25, 2016

Regular moviegoers may see no small irony relating to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.  Just as movies are pouring out of Hollywood and the independent studios about the awful heritage of slavery and segregation, just as Americans are now regularly aware of the tragic fate of minorities in our democracy, and just when progressive officeholders and the courts have pushed back the artificial boundaries that have kept African-Americans down, we are facing a Thermidorean reaction.  The Supreme Court, the White House, the Capitol are being set up for reaction.  In “The Color Purple” and “The Butler,” in “Roots” and “Hidden Figures,” Black men and women push back against attempts by the Establishment to marginalize them, to deny them a future.  One such person is August Wilson. When August Wilson wrote “Fences,” he was not concerned with a documentary-style, politicized bit of agitation propaganda. Instead the late, great playwright for whom a theater on Broadway in named focused on one man, Troy Maxson, who in the 1950s looked forward to a career as a professional baseball player, but instead wound up with a dead-end job as a garbage collector in his home town (and the playwright’s) of Pittsburgh.

“Fences” is one of the so-called Pittsburgh cycle of plays, each to take place in a different decade.  Just as TV’s “Mad Men” came to life by giving us a picture of the 1960s, “Fences” is about the 1950’s, sometimes justifiably considered the most boring American decade in recent times but also one of prosperity.  But this prosperity left African-Americans behind, whether through segregation or a refusal to grant Black men and women equivalence with Whites in jobs or living accommodations.

Troy Maxson (the last name is one of the many symbols for Mason and Dixon, the North and the South.  Troy (Denzel Washington) is on the border.  He is hopeful to some extent (like Black men in the North) but most pessimistic about his chances in life (the South).  What Mr. Washington needed was a top director and A-1 actor to play this complex man, and he found both.  They are Denzel Washington.  His character’s friends, his family, his wife, all revolve around him. They hang out with him, and listen to his long monologues (and few others can deliver long speeches like Mr. Washington).

Troy had played pro baseball with the Negro Leagues but because of his race was unable to be picked up by the majors as was Jackie Robinson. He took a job collecting rubbish, and in the fifties, you did not just throw plastic bags into the truck.  You had to empty the trash without a cover, breathing in the noxious fumes.  His fellow collector, the older Mr. Bono (Stephen Henderson), would mostly listen, but when he gave advice, Troy listened but usually did nothing.

Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis)—so named because the playwright’s mother’s name was Daisy—loved him, put up with his nonsense.  She would invite Bono in for the chicken she seems always to have on the fire.  Troy’s older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), lived for music, which did not provide him with an adequate living.  He is forced to borrow ten dollars from his dad, who accused him of being just plain lazy.  Troy’s son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is a seventeen-year-old on his high-school football team being recruited for a college scholarship, but surprisingly (or not), Troy discourages him, insisting that he continue working at A&P and perhaps forget about college.  Cory believes that his father simply wanted to prevent the boy from being better than he is.  As for the ramshackle home that Troy’s family inhabits, he regularly reminds the boy that he is being provided with a roof over his head and food for his belly, so he’d better not tangle with dad.  What remains unsaid is that the house is paid for in part by a disability pension for Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who left the War with a metal plate in his head and who acts infantile, holding his horn, parading down the street, and cautioning everyone that St. Peter is waiting.  Despite Gabriel’s emotional instability, he is like the movie’s Greek chorus, hinting to Troy of a tragic fate.  And indeed, Troy’s secret relationship with a girlfriend (not shown) forces his wife Rose to reassess the situation.

Is Troy a bad guy or good guy?  He’s both.  He is a victim of society, which suppressed his talent for the sport of baseball, forcing him into a job as trash collector—which he takes after having accidentally killed a man and landing in jail for fifteen years. He wants everyone around him to act responsibly, yet he appears to forget that his adultery, which comes out only midpoint in an announcement to Rose, is a betrayal of the woman who truly loves him.

Now, some think that a play, given the live theater’s penchant for long speeches and poetry rather than physical action and visual effects, should remain on the stage; that any attempt to film a genuine, serious, drama will seem strange on the screen.  Having seen the play “Fences” on Broadway’s 46th Street theater in 1983 with James Earl Jones in the top role and Mary Alice as his wife, I am inclined not to worry about what purists say.  Unless you’re sitting around the fifth row center in general, your view of the action is hampered.  In fact, even in orchestra seats, if you on the far right or far left, you are likely to see literally only one-half or three-fourths of the stage, and if you’re in the balcony, you’re watching TV.  The more plays like August Wilson’s that Hollywood or the indies can make, the better.  Make theater accessible to all, not just to the rich and those who live or vacation in New York.

Denzel Washington’s performance is every bit as good as that of James Earl Jones—but then again, this movie version of “Fences” has a great director in addition to a fiercely wonderful actor.

On the screen, you can appreciate the metaphors, the allegorical aspects, the way that baseball, the sport, stands in for the effects of racism.  You will pray that the fence that Troy and his son are building will be completed at least before Troy dies just as you’ll want Troy’s best friend Bono to get his wife that refrigerator.   The dramatic conclusion, in which poor Gabriel blows his horn, should bring tears to your eyes, as it did mine.  All the poetry of the drama, and even the comic touches, especially Troy’s jive-talk to Bono, are there for our enjoyment.  Just as Vice-President Elect Mike Pence was at least open-minded enough to see “Hamilton,” the play with a conspicuously multicultural cast in November, we hope that he and Donald Trump will stop at a theater whether in New York or Washington to catch “Fences.”  Maybe it will turn them away from the accused White Nationalism.

Unrated. 140 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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