And we’re back at it! It’s that time of year when Hollywood releases what they consider their artistic triumphs in an attempt to secure Oscar glory, and I do my best to watch them all and determine whether it was worth the effort. Welcome to my third annual “Chasing Oscar” series!
Fences, adapted from the August Wilson play, is a film about the tragedy of unfulfilled potential: the nagging regret and the festering resentment that comes when you bury the pain. Troy Maxson is a man with plenty of it, a black sanitation worker in 1950s Philadelphia who had dreams of baseball stardom but didn’t have the means or support to see it through. In his middle age, he is a silver-tongued, wisecracking, crumbling soul that is flailing in the quickly advancing world that he could never get a handle on.
As family patriarch, Troy’s hardened self-pity hurts those around him. He berates his sons, adult musician Lyons and teenaged football talent Cory, for their perceived lack of work ethic and dependence on his small finances. Troy balks at Cory’s college bound path, a reminder of his own failed sports ambitions, and takes cruel steps to undercut him. He is gentler towards his brother Gabe, mentally impaired from a war injury, although guilt from collecting his pension keeps them distant. And then there is Rose, whose love and devotion isn’t enough to keep Troy’s eye from wandering.
Denzel Washington, serving as Fences’ star and director, played Troy in a Broadway revival, and his deep connection to the material shines through. He flies through the dense, rapid-fire dialogue with ease and imbues Troy with a relatable, no-nonsense affability that makes his inner failings sting. In his direction, Washington shows deference to Wilson’s book and an intimate appreciation of the culture he wanted to showcase. Mostly constrained to the Maxson kitchen and backyard, the experience is thoroughly, unapologetically Black. The scope of action rarely ventures beyond the homestead, further conveying the Maxsons’ deep, close-knit fractures. Washington resists the urge to dull the film’s stage roots, and it mostly works. He could’ve spared 20 or so minutes: at two and a half hours, the energetic propulsion of Wilson’s dialogue does lose some steam, and the scenes outside of the home feel extraneous. Those issues are relatively minor, especially when held against the tremendous acting talent of Washington and his stage and screen co-star Viola Davis.
Speaking of Davis, damn, she is so winning an Academy Award for this role. Her performance is a masterclass of simmering heartbreak and exasperation that explodes in a pressure cooker of a scene that is even more searing than previews suggest. I was sure that her competing in the Best Supporting Actress category was a huge error, but it makes sense upon viewing. Davis plays the good, tired wife of Rose so well, ribbing her over-exaggerated spouse and pleading for peace when his impulses want the opposite. She truly comes alive, though, when the extent of Troy’s failings come to light. Davis telegraphs Wilson’s words into a ferocious rebuke of the trappings of Black Womanhood that inspired rapturous applause in the theater I was in. Rose’s reclamation of agency in the film’s third act, small as it is, is cathartic joy.
At a time when the value of Blackness has been open to interpretation, Fences finds the tragic beauty in the internal and external pressures that define it. Washington transmutes August Wilson’s play into a powerful, emotional film that is daring in how it portrays Black culture, warts and all. Fences is also a playground for two of Hollywood’s finest actors at the peak of their powers, delivering engrossing, note-perfect performances that is a privilege to watch. I believe the Academy will feel the same and bestow them the recognition they deserve.