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Rafini's Movie Review: Fences

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Pop culture enthusiast and poet; Writer of non-fiction, personal essays and memoir.

From Broadway to Film

Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

Brilliant Performances Shine Light on Transition

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is the film adaptation of the Broadway play by the same name. Both written by August Wilson. Released in December of 2016, this film does little to further societal understanding of segregationist and discriminatory practices commonly observed and applied between the Civil War and Civil Rights eras. Serving as the director and a producer of the film, Washington delivers an outstanding performance in all three categories, as does Davis for her brilliant performance of the dutiful wife. However, the story of isolation is a weak one that fails to authentically progress into a story about the possibilities and opportunistic promises of equality.


An Unknown Victim

The story begins with the mundane everyday life of a blue-collar worker as he talks non-stop with his co-worker, and continues highlighting subtle key moments from the following year in the life of Washington’s character. Although racism and discrimination are alluded to through dialogue, and expected due to the 1950’s Philadelphia setting, there is no real evidence shown on the screen other than the lack of white characters, which signifies a segregationist society. As the story of isolation and defeat due to discrimination continues to unfold, the relationship between the two main characters steadily deteriorates into another statistic. Their relationship an unknown victim of deferred dreams

Questioning Began Early in the Film

Throughout the film, Washington’s character communicates flawlessly, despite not knowing how to read, and uses the appropriate language of a high school graduate. Although his speech hints at known vulgarities of the uneducated, the level of self-control exhibited defies equally known psychological patterns of the illiterate. While I can accept that exceptions to the norm do exist, Fences appeared to provide nothing but exceptions to the evidential documentation offered throughout factual and media related history. As I watched the film I couldn’t help but conjure images from my past, of being a child watching Roots expose the atrocities of slavery on national network TV in the same decade as Jimmy “J.J.” Walker portrayed a goofy adolescent on a somewhat gritty and realistically framed sitcom. I couldn’t help but remember Mammy’s sarcastic presence in Gone with the Wind, which seemed carried over into every other sarcastic African American performance I had seen throughout my childhood. And, as I watched the film, I wondered whether Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, or Sidney Poitier would have portrayed the main character the same way Washington did. Then, by the end of the film, I had to wonder what was the significance of Washington’s direction and portrayal of this particularly demoralized man?

Digging for Answers

The first thing I did when I got home was to look up Fences on IMDb. I had to know what others thought of this film because I was sure nobody would have liked it. Much to my surprise, however, it had already collected an eight out of ten star rating and a healthy dose of positive reviews. What, I wondered, was I missing from this movie that I had initially thought I would have preferred to read rather than watch? So, I dug a little deeper and discovered Washington was chosen as director because Wilson had wanted an African American to direct this film. Okay, I get it. No offense taken. I can live with that, but still, what was the significance of all the long shots, the limited settings, the explanatory dialogue, and the lack of a mood enhancing soundtrack? I just didn’t get it, so I kept digging.

IMDb rating - 8 out of 10 Stars

Changing Directions

The first thing I looked into was Washington’s history as an actor and a director, and was surprised to learn I have only seen one of his films. Philadelphia, from 1993. I wondered about that for a brief moment, then scanned the list of movies he’d done, again. How could I possibly have gone this far in life recognizing the name and face of Denzel Washington without seeing but one of his movies? I had to be mistaken, right? Except, I quickly realized, not only did I not recognize most of the titles, but the titles that I did recognize were from a period of my life when my movie going choices were non-existent because I couldn’t even afford to think about going to the movies. I was simply going to have to find another direction for my review.

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Recognizing the name and face of Denzel Washington

Recognizing the name and face of Denzel Washington

Actor and Director

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

Research Pays Off

After checking into Washington’s past work, I still did not quite understand the significance of the film I had just seen Tuesday night. There simply had to be more to it. I checked the trivia section of IMDb, again, and read how Fences was originally a 1983 play, which was the sixth out of Wilson’s ten-part series of “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays, and that Washington and Davis had both starred in the play. Wait a minute! I did an immediate double-take. Had I seriously just read that this film was originally on Broadway and that there were nine other stories, or plays, interconnected with it? Now everything was beginning to make sense. The long takes were remnants of the stage where the curtain was lowered before changing the setting/scenery. The limited settings mirrored the lower budget of a Broadway play opposed to a blockbuster film, the explanatory dialogue cemented the timeframe of the action, and the missing soundtrack suggested a similarity existed between the original stage production and the film adaptation. This similarity, then, implied another level of loneliness and isolation for the characters exists than the metaphoric construction of a backyard fence.

A New Interpretation

Through my research and writing of this review, my views of this film have changed. Immediately upon arriving home after viewing the film I gave Fences an eight out of ten star rating. Because everything, from the acting and directing to set design and sound quality, was superb. What, then, prevented me from giving this film ten stars? As I sit here thinking about it the only thing I can come up with is my questioning whether the character’s behaviors were genuinely authentic. My doubts of authenticity come not from over the top pop culture performances throughout my life, but from the personal experiences of growing up with a black step-father immediately following the Civil Rights movement of 1960’s America, and from witnessing the rebellious behaviors of the African Americans I went to school with. I have to wonder, now, whether Malcom X gave them the voice that I heard or if the strength of their voices were the result of finally being heard. Whichever the case, Fences takes place during the late and innocent 1950’s, after Martin Luther King Jr. began his career as an activist, and ends in 1962 just before the loss of innocence when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. With this historical context the theme of Fences becomes one of transition rather than seclusion. And, while I don’t think Fences is a must-see film, I do recommend this film for its quality in, among other things, cinematography, directing, acting, and set-design. I hope you enjoy it.

An Oscar Winning Performance?

Viola Davis in Fences

Viola Davis in Fences

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