Every December, a slew of releases are tagged as “obvious Oscar bait.” What does this mean? Typically, they’re projects that focus specifically on a theme weighty enough to be marked as “important,” are shot with “seriousness,” and boast a cast of A-list names chasing Academy gold. The implication is that said film’s ultimate intention is winning awards, disregarding audience approval in the process.
“Oscar bait” generally gets a bad rap, but for a film like Fences – which is undoubtedly Oscar bait – a focus on Best Actor/Actress nominations makes for two of 2016’s most compelling performances. Stuffy cinematography does no favors based on August Wilson’s stage production (there’s a definite attempt to remain theater-savvy that does not work), but Denzel Washington and Viola Davis make this showcase piece worth the Oscar chase.
Both will be nominated for their respective acting categories, and there’s a damn-good chance both win (Davis may have an easier road, though). The film itself languishes in the rundown backyard of an impoverished African-American neighborhood, but it’s worth the blue-collar power emanating from two veteran actors who leave everything inside those titular fences. Sweat, tears, sacrifice and all.
Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a colored garbage man trying to make a decent living in a world where race relations still dictate many American lives. Troy was once a great baseball player, but never received his shot at MLB stardom because African-American talents were stuck in segregated leagues – a prejudice that taints Troy’s perception.
He refuses to let son Cory (Jovan Adepo) pursue his football dreams (even though he’s being recruited by college scouts) because he sees no future for a colored NFL player, which becomes one of many points of contention in the Maxson house. Wife Rose (Viola Davis) tries to play a constant mediator, but her husband grows weary of the duties he’s faced with each and every day. Troy is just an honest many trying to make an honest life, but that’s a lot harder than it seems.
Even though decades have passed, it’s easy to commiserate with Troy’s Americana plight. Too many of us are still “working for the weekend,” killing time at day jobs we hate to pay for our expensive lifestyles. Years worth of dispassionate labor can weigh heavy on a man, and it’s this connection that immediately opens the door to Troy’s bear-all soul. It’s no coincidence that the first time we meet Troy is after work on a Friday, when he can split a bottle of gin with a friend (Jim Bono, played by Stephen Henderson) and jabber away the weekday blues. This is Troy at his most comfortable – a glimpse that’s meant to ease us into suburban survival, only to increase dramatic conflict as days grow cloudier.
At this point, Fences becomes a deep-dive into family dramatics of meagre means. Troy puffs his chest as the alpha of his pack, forcing Cory into a position of cowardice where Troy makes no qualms about ruling his household with a stern backhand. The more Troy feels disrespected, the more he counts down the strikes Cory has left (baseball metaphors are Troy’s only means of communication). Old-school parenting keeps a belt handy for beatings, while Rose is forced to deal with her husband’s drunk affection and cold weekday demeanor. It’s a question between living and surviving, the latter of which Troy rallies behind in the most soul-sucking way (why buy a $200 TV when the roof needs fixing)?
Admittedly, the material itself plays like standard Death Of A Salesman era storytelling. Nothing revolutionary. Instead, a story of fickle devotion is lit ablaze by Washington and Davis – hell, and by Mykelti Williamson (Troy’s handicapped war-vet brother), Russell Hornsby (older son Lyons) and Stephen Henderson as well. Even young Saniyya Sidney deserves recognition for her minimal screen time as a daughter who comes into play farther into Fences. The constricting theater atmosphere that Washington (as a director, this time) must wrestle with makes for more emotive performances on all accounts, and while they might not feel cinematic, even the most unimportant word hits with enunciated power.
But, it is Washington and Davis who stun on unreachable levels. My-oh-my do they dance a dusty, ramshackled tango together. Washington weaves these never-ending stories that are constantly shifting, but so vivid in detail (wrestling with the devil, for instance), while Davis watches on and can only laugh innocently. She’s there for her man, through thick and thicker, but Washington’s arc is more insecure.
As his mistakes slowly catch up, Davis shifts from a homely, motherly provider to a scorned wife who’s granted monologues drenched in sorrowful tears. Power doesn’t matter during their confrontations, though – any exchange is an A+ powder-keg that explodes with human charisma. Fiery breaths of verbal battles, or jovial circle-banter that can entrance with the dumbest of stories. It all works, no matter the tone.
Fences is build on strength of character, as each plotted post rests on the backs of performers whose game could not be more elevated. Forget the announcer in NBA Jam warning you “He’s heating up!” – from the minute Denzel Washington enters the frame, he’s already on fire. Unstoppable in his fatherly gruffness, situational disparity and sternness in living a “safe” life. “Some people build fences to keep people out,” Bono waxes, “and other people build fences to keep people in.” If only Troy heeded such words, then the Maxon family might have had an easier go at things – but, thankfully, we witness how “the American dream” can be a curse of sorts, worth two dynamite performances that will be ruling most awards conversations this February.
Fences is old-school Americana that's driven by dynamite performances all around, albeit a bit stuffy in nature.