Movie Review: Fences (2016)
It felt too much like a play.
I know: It was a play—a Pulitzer-Prize-winner by August Wilson, part of his “Pittsburgh Cycle” which documented the African-American experience every decade in the 20th century. This was the 1950s one. Even so, adapting for the screen, I wanted it a little more cinematic. We don’t get out of that backyard much. Plus we get great heaps of monologue the way you do in plays rather than movies. The movies would show rather than tell but this movie keeps telling and telling and telling.
Of course, that’s part of the point, isn’t it? You could say that Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), the 53-year-old garbage man/patriarch of the Maxson clan, hides his volatility with volubility. Or maybe his volubility is a symptom of his volatility. He keeps talking so he doesn’t do something worse. And in that talk, in his constant myth-making and challenges to others—which only his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), seems to stand up to—he creates more tension. By having him talk less, you remove that tension.
Even so, I could’ve used less talk. Or maybe I wanted the tension to lead elsewhere? Explode in a different way? I wanted to care more about Troy than I did. He doesn’t let you care about him, then wonders where you went. That’s the point of him, too. He's a man who builds fences.
Death of a Garbageman
It’s similar to “Death of a Salesman,” isn’t it? Both Troy Maxson and Willy Loman are denied career advancement. In Troy’s case, it’s obviously racism (he was a great baseball player before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier), and in Willy’s it’s, what, simply the underside of the American dream? Or, as some have suggested, it could be a veiled anti-Semitism.
Both men have loyal wives whom they cheat on. Both have two boys with problems of their own and a neighbor/friend with whom they drink/play cards. There’s even the brother that’s there but not. Willy’s brother is Ben, the embodiment of the American dream, who walked into the jungle when he was 17 and walked out at 21—and by God he was rich! He’s dead now, but he continues to haunt Willy. Troy’s brother is the not-subtly-named Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, Bubba of “Forrest Gump”), who is physically there but mentally not. He was shot during World War II and now has a metal plate in his head. He goes around selling fruit on the streets of Pittsburgh, with a toy trumpet strung to him, claiming to have been to St. Peter’s gate. For his injury in service to his country, Gabriel got $3,000 from the feds that Troy used to buy the house they live in. Gabriel used to live there, too; now he’s homeless. Troy feels guilty about all of this. He’s haunted by his brother as much as Willy is.
In the end, both men die. In the end, the wives give speeches defending them. In the end, attention must be paid.
As the movie opens, Troy is making the rounds in Pittsburgh clinging to the back of a truck and jawing with his friend, Bono (an excellent Stephen Henderson). He’s got complaints. Number one is that only whites drive the trucks. He’s officially complained about this, and now he’s worried because the deputy commissioner wants to see him. But it’s Friday, he’s got a pint of gin, and he and Bono drink it in his backyard and swap stories. Well, Troy does most of the swapping.
Let’s ask the screenwriting 101 question: What does the guy want?
He wants his oldest son from another marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), to be more responsible. Lyons plays jazz at a club, he’s got sketchy friends, he keeps borrowing hard-earned money from Troy. We get 10 minutes of arguing over 10 dollars before Rose (rather than Troy) relents. The money exchanges hands but there are no good feelings about it.
He wants his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), to not make the same mistakes he made. Troy was a great baseball player, he was denied opportunity because of the color line, and he doesn’t want it to happen to Cory. Except that’s the last war; the color line is, if not gone, at least traversable. Besides, the boy is getting college scholarship offers to play football, and Troy wants him to learn a trade? It’s college! That’s how you get ahead in America. Everybody knows that. It annoyed me that no one could make this argument stick. But then, there’s a sense that Troy doesn’t want his son to succeed. Troy wants to remain rooster in his own henhouse, and that stops if Cory gets educated.
What else does Troy want? He wants gin on Friday, an audience for his stories. He wants his son to help him build the titular fence in the backyard. His biggest want takes place off-screen: He has an affair with a younger woman at work that leads to a child. The affair was a place where he didn’t have to be responsible, but this irresponsibility simply creates more responsibility—for Rose, in particular, who has to raise the child, a girl, when the mother dies giving birth. It also leads to Troy’s estrangement from both Rose and Bono. The final estrangement is with Cory, who, afraid of his father, and unable to physically beat his father, joins the U.S. Marines.
One of the few things Troy wants and gets? His meeting with the deputy commissioner goes well, and he becomes the man driving the truck rather than hauling the trash. He breaks the color barrier! He’s Jackie Robinson! Except it’s not what he wants. Instead of being on the back of the truck, jawing, he’s up front, alone, with no one to talk to. A Troy without an audience is a Troy who can’t mythologize himself, and he shrinks. By the end of the movie, his main conversation is with death.
A rose is a rose
This is the third movie that Denzel has directed and he doesn’t do a poor job of it, but I’m not a fan of underlining points and Denzel is: the rose falling from Rose’s hands; the portraits of MLK and JFK on the wall. I already see it; I don’t need Denzel to then tap me on the shoulder and say, “You see that? Right there? That. You see? That.”
As an actor, though, I could watch him all day. Someone wrote recently that Denzel is the best over-actor in the world and there’s something there. The actor playing Cory is fine but too small in stature for the role; I want him to at least look like he could challenge his father. Viola Davis is a national treasure.
The coda at the end, on the day of Troy’s funeral, is one of the more interesting scenes in the movie. Maybe because you have that sweet interplay between Cory, returning home in uniform, and his new half-sister, Raynell (Saniyya Sidney), who’s adorable, and who, if you forward-date (she turns 18 in ... 1975 or so), has a chance in life. Or maybe because Troy’s voice is finally silent.