Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington has made his mark on film history with such films as “Malcolm X” and “Glory.” His work as a director has admittedly struggled to find the right voice and aesthetic to capture the same passion he’s brought to his acting roles. In the adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences,” the iconic actor can now attach the term “iconic director” to his already impressive resume. Thespis (considered to be the world’s first actor) can rest well knowing a dynamic, masterful class of performers is taking acting to boundless heights. “Fences” digs deep to ask its audience some very difficult questions. We can only submit to its bountiful script and rapturous thespians to answer those demanding inquiries.
“Fences” tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), an African-American father who struggles with race relations in the United States. While trying to raise his family in the 1950s, he begins to come to terms with the events of his life. Mixed in the turmoil is his wife Rose (Viola Davis), sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) and best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
About two years ago, the Awards Circuit team took on the daunting task of naming our “Greatest Performances of All-Time.” Each writer took the time to come up with their own list, and sitting comfortably at No.5 on my own was the breathtaking turn of Denzel Washington portraying the controversial Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s masterpiece. His latest work in “Fences” has created a challenge to that list, and could unseat that performance as his very best. Washington has never been more bewitching, charismatic or vigorous in all his years as an actor. He pounds on the chest of Troy, declaring his authoritative masculinity upon his family. He then grabs the audience by the collar, flexing his chops, and demands nothing less than our undivided attention. Washington has now emerged as a frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Actor. With two under his belt for “Glory” and “Training Day,” winning this year would allow him to join the leagues of Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, company that he should be keeping.
After a stinging loss in 2012 for Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” Viola Davis manages to top a career that has included first-class performances from all the mediums of acting. As Rose, she bubbles to the surface with the sweet and endearing nature of a dutiful wife and mother. The subtlety of an inner contention is shown only in the briefest instances within Davis’ work. She takes the viewer under her wing, caring for us with her gentle, affectionate demeanor. She then holds us close, almost protecting us from Troy’s volatility, but then pushing us closer when he’s charmingly lovable. At the peak of her game, Davis taps into the marrow of her bones, unleashing the savagery and affliction of a broken woman. The woman knows no boundaries, as she leaps to the top of just about every actress working today. Oscar, here she comes!
Every directorial choice that can seem like a misstep is utterly forgivable as Washington seems to have truly found his own aesthetic and voice behind the camera. One of the biggest criticisms of the many play-to-film adaptations that have landed in the last few years (e.g. “Doubt” and “August: Osage County”), is they struggle to define themselves beyond the wooden floors of the stage. The source material doesn’t allow Washington to explore too much outside his own backyard and home, where 90 percent of the story takes place. For many, that will resemble the confines of the stage in a very apparent way. For those understanding the source material, it leaves little opportunity for expansion. When you have words this rich, you don’t need expansion. With that said, there are one or two choices in direction that perhaps should not have been explored. However, it makes the audience eager to see Washington nail every note behind the camera next time.
If there’s an award you can now check off during the Oscar season, it’s the SAG Ensemble. Each player holds their own against a tumultuous character, defining their own crafts with some of the year’s finest works. As the disabled veteran Gabriel, Mykelti Williamson reminds the world that he’s one of our most sacred and refined secrets in the industry. He won’t remain a secret any longer. While the untrained lover of movies will only remember his breakout turn in “Forrest Gump” over 20 years ago, his work here will have many of us going to rediscover and notice his terrific supporting turns throughout the years. It’s a performance that deserves all the accolades that will befall it.
Newcomer Jovan Adepo has just blazed the path for what is sure to be an incredible acting career. As Cory, Adepo mirrors the pain and confusion of a young boy aching during his transition to a man in the shadow of his father. Stephen McKinley Henderson uses charm as a second language, magnetically appealing to the viewer with his wit and his heartbreaking subtext. Russell Hornsby‘s smooth-talking older son Lyons fixates on being the icing on this already delicious cake. While he doesn’t stand out of the supporting players, he makes due with the screen time he’s given.
Washington assembles a talented team that includes cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, framing the scenes with a quiet confidence. Oscar-winning editor Hughes Winborne cuts with resilience, which allows other stories to be told with very little words spoken. If there is a true winner in below-the-line categories, though, you can’t do much better than David Gropman‘s stunning production design or Rebecca Brown‘s set decoration. The creation of Troy’s backyard feels like its own world where we all want to live and flee. It helps also that Sharen Davis‘ beautiful costume work is exhibited with spirit and heart.
The highlight of “Fences” truly is the soul of playwright and screenwriter August Wilson (who adapted the screenplay before his death in 2005) that is embedded in each verb, noun and phrase spoken from the page. He created one of the most lavish and multi-layered stories, turning the key into a world that not many of us have the opportunity to explore. All we can do is give thanks to him…wherever he is, thank you.
“Fences” is a masterclass in acting. It is a purely invigorating experience at the movies, one that will be burned into our cinematic memories for some time – perhaps for all of time. It is a towering achievement that we should be so lucky to see practiced in our modern times.
“Fences” is distributed by Paramount Pictures and is scheduled to be released on Dec. 25 in limited release.