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Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com! For those joining us in progress, it's awards season so I'm catching up on as many past Best Picture nominees as I can before this year's Oscars.
The latest nominee to which I circled back is the 2016 drama Fences, starring and directed by Denzel Washington, with Viola Davis, and based on the Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson (who also adapted it for the screen). Fences is a simple narrative about a working-class African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh. The patriarch Troy works as a garbage collector, and the film begins as he and his best friend/coworker Jim head home for their weekend ritual of sharing a bottle of gin and engaging in spirited debate about work, baseball, Troy's past, his kids, etc. Troy has two sons from different mothers, the elder is Lyons, a 34-year-old musician who often drops by to borrow money, and the younger is Cory, 17, who lives with Troy and his wife Rose. Cory is a promising high school student who's being courted for a football scholarship, but Troy, having hit a glass ceiling as a pro baseball player (Major League Baseball wasn't yet integrated during his career in the Negro Leagues), is disillusioned with pro sports and doesn't want his son suffering the same fate. Rose quietly puts up with Troy's bombastic posturing but calls him out when he takes it too far, like when he claims to have actually won a wrestling match with death. Troy's mentally impaired brother Gabe lives nearby and often visits; Gabe earned $3000 in disability compensation after sustaining a head injury during World War II, and Troy used the money to buy the house he and Rose live in, while Gabe has since moved out.
The film is essentially a series of "day in the life" scenes between Troy and his various family members. Troy and Cory have a very contentious relationship, mostly stemming from the football situation, while Troy disapproves of Lyons' lifestyle as a struggling musician. Rose attempts to get Troy to understand his sons' points of view but Troy is bullheaded and rigidly attached to his old-school values, and his various relationships suffer because of it.
This is a film driven by its detailed performances. Washington is stellar as always, making us feel for Troy at times while seriously resenting him at others. His inflexibility and domineering parenting of Cory borders on emotional abuse, and a second-act revelation irreparably damages his otherwise loving marriage to Rose. Viola Davis, in a turn that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar, is raw and real in her shining moments, conveying volatie sadness and anger at Troy's betrayal and later bitter iciness when Troy asks of her an unthinkable favor.
Washington's direction makes the film feel like a play while still lending it cinematic flair. The bulk of the story takes place in Troy and Rose's house, but the use of wide lenses in their backyard makes it feel much more open than it really is, while indoor scenes make the house feel constrictive. The focus is squarely on the actors; the camera is there to capture their humanity in a visually engaging way.
Fences is very strong film, perhaps a little longer than it needed to be - 138 minutes feels like a lot for a film set in basically one location - but boasting Oscar-worthy performances and fueled by Wilson's deep dive into themes of hubris, obstinancy, betrayal, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Troy and Rose are complex, very real characters, versions of people we've all encountered at one time or another. Being a fly on their wall is both fascinating and painful.
I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.