Review: Fences | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Fences

Redbrick Film's Josh Woods reviews Fences, the play adaptation hotly tipped for Oscar glory

This movie has been a long time in the making. The late August Wilson had insisted that were Fences (part of his famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays) ever to be adapted to the big screen, it would specifically require an African-American director to properly convey the experiences of a poor black family in 1950's Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Such is the backward nature of Hollywood that, for years, the big film companies were reluctant to hand over such a high-budget project to a black director.

Step in Denzel Washington, who directs and stars as the middle-aged Troy, a bitter former baseball player now working as a garbage man. Washington and his cast embody the complex sadness and frustration of being confined: they are fenced in by the limitations of racial barriers, financial scarcity and familial obligations. Affable and colourful on the surface, Troy’s superficial charm belies the deep emotional wreckage he has bestowed upon his loved ones over the years. 

Washington and his cast embody the complex sadness and frustration of being confined

Now living a modest life and working long hours, Troy harbours great resentment at being held back by segregation in professional baseball – he could only compete in the Negro Leagues, not the Major Leagues. Times have changed since his day, but Troy is too blinded by his own experiences to notice. His denial extends to the point where he derides the abilities of Jackie Robinson (all-time baseball legend and Civil Rights icon), a moment that is funny but also tragically illuminating. Having walked out on his own dysfunctional Alabama family at the age of 14 and fled to the North, the treatment he faced in Pittsburgh struck with a greater blow. Troy’s disillusionment embodies a commonly shared experience of the Great Migration, and the broken promises of equality in the North have made him deeply cynical of any notions of progress for African-Americans.

Troy refuses to support either of his sons who, just like he did, want to pursue personal goals beyond merely working hard and surviving. It is understandably frustrating that his thirty-something son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) seems to stop by and visit only on Troy’s payday, but Troy’s restricted ideas on personal responsibility mean he is too proud to see his son’s band perform. In a particularly arresting scene, the teenage Cory (Jovan Adepo) asks his father “how come you ain’t ever like me?”. Troy torments his son by reminding him that looking after him is simply his duty, and jealously disrupts Cory’s bright prospects as an American football player. Fences is not light entertainment. The emphasis on rich dialogue and lengthy running time mark it out as an adaptation of a play, and it’s easy to imagine this drama on the stage - for instance, we get a lot more screen-time of Troy lecturing on the importance of honest hard work than we do of him actually working. 

Fences is not light entertainment

Troy is overburdened with dark forces. He recalls wrestling the Grim Reaper in disturbing detail, whilst his brain-damaged brother Gabe wears a trumpet, fights demons and attempts to summon Judgement Day. His wife Rose, superbly played by the Oscar-nominated Viola Davis, too has deep and dark regrets but draws strength from her devotion to family and her ability to accept change. Where her husband denied that fortunes were changing for black athletes, Rose selflessly welcomes the prospects of a brighter future for her children. A flash forward depicts her home adorned with the portraits of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy.  Troy resigns himself to his fate, whereas Rose boldly asserts her agency, insisting that it was her decision to sacrifice the last twenty years of her life to her marriage.

Verdict: The main strength of Fences lies in its ambiguity. In the claustrophobic confines of family home, where violence and alcoholism are let loose, it is hard to fully understand the relationships between the characters. Do they want to stay together or do they feel they have to stay together? Fences is an excellent film because it resists satisfying resolutions and moral certainty.

Rating: 8/10

Article by Josh Woods


17th February 2017 at 11:21 am