At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fences “2016”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fences “2016”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Drama/Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney/Runtime: 139 minutes

I think it is safe to say that among the many things I love about the art form that is cinema, there is one thing that always manages to distinguish itself when it decides to show itself off for everyone to see. That being when a group of top-flight cast of performers are given some riveting material to work with that proves to be a wonderful complement to their talents. The reason I bring that is because the 2016 cinematic take on the play Fences is one example of that in action. Indeed there is no doubt in the mind of this writer that Fences is one of the best American plays complete with an iconic cast of characters, phenomenally penned dialogue, and a story that will both lift your spirits and break your heart in equal measure. So of course, a cinematic adaptation of this iconic property with a stacked cast made up mostly of players from a 13 weeks in 2010 Broadway revival and that has acting legend Denzel Washington both in the lead role and behind the camera as helmer of a slice of cinema for the third time in his genuinely legendary career is sure to raise my curiosity levels quite a bit. Of course, the elements that work absolute magic on the stage might not always function as well when transferred over to celluloid. Suffice it to say that is definitely the case here as there are moments where this slice of cinema does come off a bit too theatrical for its own good. Thankfully however we see that this is by no means a problem that is able to bring down the whole movie. Rather, this is one cinematic adaptation that should you be able to get past this sense of theatricality and permit yourself to be blown away by the wonderful work behind and (especially) in front of the camera what you are left with is no more and no less than genuine movie magic.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of the play by August Wilson that takes us back in time to Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences gets its riveting story underway by introducing us to our main character in the shape and form of a man by the name of Troy Maxon. Troy, we rather quickly learn, is a trash collector who is engaged in combat with the upper management at his company to earn the right to go from collector to driver. Until or unless he does though, we see that Troy still strives to do the best he can so as to support his loving wife Rose and son Cory who live with him in their tiny yet modestly comfortable home. Even so though, we see that Troy is still afflicted with a horrific case of the grumbles. You see dear reader, Troy was also someone who at one time had the talent to play baseball and in fact did so in the Negro Leagues, but was sadly shown the door when he tried to play for the MLB due to his age (even though he claims other things that I shouldn’t have to explain here). As a result, we see that the more than slightly bitter Troy not only makes it quite and consistently clear what he thinks of such individuals as Jackie Robinson, but also has no qualms about extending this bitterness/jealousy toward such people as his own son Cory who, when our story opens, is getting visits from college recruiters due to his skill at playing football. On top of that, we see that Troy’s marriage with Rose is also not exactly on stable ground due to both how he treats her and their family to say nothing of other situations I shan’t spoil here. Thus, as Troy faces these and other issues in his life it isn’t long before we see that Troy also inadvertently starts to make further issues for himself. Issues incidentally that not only make the path he’s living a lot more perilous, but ones that could also in the snap of a finger completely annihilate all the good things life has provided him that he has been too blind to see this whole time…..

Now right off the bat, it should be noted that this slice of cinema’s lead star/director Denzel Washington does an incredible job of ensuring that this cinematic venture gives off the vibe of feeling very much like a play rather than a live action motion picture since not only does the whole thing take place in perhaps a handful (at most) of locations, but it is also incredibly dialogue-heavy. Yet even with that vibe in place, there is no denying that this slice of cinema might seem like a play, but it also doesn’t 110% feel like it belongs merely on the stage at the same time either. This of course is in large part to not only the wonderful work by the cinematography department in ensuring this cinematic adaptation possess a clear and on-point tempo, but also in how Washington is able to get everything on the right beat with a swiftness and an immense enthusiasm that will in turn ensure that you too are just as invested in what occurs as this slice of cinema moves along. Perhaps the best thing however that this slice of cinema has going for it behind the camera though is the fact that Washington chooses to remain as faithful to the original author August Wilson’s written word as humanely possible. This is because if I am being honest dear reader the dialogue penned by Wilson for this story is a wonderful mix of heartfelt, heartbreaking, genuine, and more than a tad bit explicit and to hear Washington and the rest of the cast at the heart of this (a lot of whom actually performed these respective roles night after night in a 2010 Broadway production of this very play) speak these words is truly vocal music for the ears.  Of course, even with all of those positives in mind, I have no doubt whatsoever that the fact that this cinematic venture even remotely resembles a theatrical play in many respects might make some of you movie goers out there to have second thoughts about watching this (even with the heavy hitters it is operating with in front of the camera). With that in mind though, trust me when I say that Denzel is very much aware of how vibrant and magnetic this material can be when given over to the right performers instead of trying to engage in some kind of cinematic sorcery to bring life where life is not needed. Perhaps, this is why we see that the bulk of the work in making this slice of cinema work on the level that it is meant to is assigned to the cast of players in front of the camera to just pick up the baton and bolt for the finish line which truthfully is the most effective way to regale an audience with this particular tale.

Speaking of, I guess now would be the best time to tell you that the cast that has been assembled here to bring this tale to life is nothing short of excellence, but given that the majority of them played their respective characters on Broadway for a solid 13 weeks I can’t really lie and say that’s all that surprising to me. This starts with no less than acting legend Denzel Washington in the role of Troy Maxson. Indeed, the role of Troy is an incredibly challenging role to play because at first this is a guy that you can’t help, but actually feel sorry for as a person. However, as the story goes along and things begin happening, you find that the sorrow you feel for him is consistently being challenged due to the fact that this guy does do and say some pretty despicable things to those in his life. Yet through it all be it the bitterness, the frustration or even the moments where he’s joking around and smiling with others, Denzel brings his trademark million-watt gravitas to the role and really makes this one performance that truly soars. Yet alongside the phenomenal performance being given here by Washington is a collection of equally as magnetic performances from a truly phenomenal support cast. This starts with Viola Davis who is equal parts electric yet incredibly emotionally potent in the pivotal role of Troy’s wife Rose. Indeed, as portrayed by Davis, Rose is someone who loves her husband and family with all of her heart yet also has no qualms about speaking her mind or in giving her husband a piece of her mind should the situation call for it. It is in that latter category where we see Davis truly shine as there is a moment in this story where a revelation is made and, in that moment, just launches into this explosive tirade that is an equal mix of white-hot anger and volcanic lava spewing hurt that might be difficult to watch for a lot of you out there, but trust me when I say that you will not be able to take your eyes off the screen. Suffice it to say that Davis has for a while now been one of the more phenomenal actresses that the land of movie magic has been blessed to have, but here she manages to give us easily one of the ten best performances of her career without question. We also get wonderful work here from Stephen McKinley Henderson (also reprising his role from the 2010 stage production) in the role of Troy’s best friend Jim Bono. Indeed, this is a role that is a bit on the tricky side to play because yes Bono is Troy’s dear friend, but he isn’t always on board with how Troy acts especially in regard to how he treats his wife yet he can’t show it because he doesn’t want to get on Troy’s bad side. Suffice it to say that despite being a fairly challenging role to play, we see that Henderson does a beautiful job of walking that particular tightrope perfectly. We also see that in the roles of Troy’s sons Cory and Lyons both Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby are terrific as well. Having said that though, it should be noted that the role of Cory is by far the weightier one to play. This is because not only is this the character that Troy lashes out at the most, but he is also the one he has several significant confrontations with throughout the story. With that in mind, there is no denying that Adepo does a phenomenal job at not only showcasing Cory’s exasperation at his father seemingly not wanting anything to do with him, but also a subtle terror that he might actually turn into this guy someday. Finally, I also think that praise should be given to Mykelti Williamson who, in the integral role of Troy’s disabled brother Gabriel, brings a wonderful child-like sensitivity to the proceedings here that it desperately needs especially when things get as heavy and emotional as they turn out. Suffice it to say therefore that there truly is not a single weak link to be found amongst this cast as they are all absolute aces.

All in all and at the end of the day, I think it can be safely said dear reader that Fences is easily one of the most riveting on an emotional level to say nothing of driven slices of cinema that the year 2016 sought fit to give us. Indeed, this is a film that could easily have just been a carbon copy of the play that it is an adaption of at best and a filming of the actual play a ’la Hamilton Live at worst. Along with that, this easily could have resorted to some serious cinematic wizardry to try and desperately keep you invested in the story and the characters rather than just let the teams both behind and in front of the camera do that for themselves. Thankfully, that is definitely not the case here as we see that this slice of cinema, despite a few flaws here and there, manages to incorporate fantastic work behind the camera and truly phenomenal work in front of it by a remarkable cast of players to elevate this slice of cinema beyond anything that might have been anticipated. Put another way dear reader: not only is this a wonderful example of storytelling at its best, but this is one of the most genuinely engaging films I have watched in a while. Sure, it can’t escape the fact that it was a theatrical play first and foremost, but that’s ok. I say that because this is one slice of cinema that is so successful at exploring its characters through and through that in so doing this film is able to consistently keep you, the viewer engaged with genuine dramatic substance and phenomenal acting rather than always looking for an easy way out. Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Fences “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.