I’ve always had tremendous respect for Denzel Washington. I can’t think of any actor since Paul Newman who has better combined acting talent with movie star charisma. He was gifted with more handsome, charm, and ability than any person has a right to ask for.
One of the more underrated aspects of his career (much like Newman’s) is his willingness to play a heel. He’s done it several times, but people never think of him as specializing in such. Probably because of that megawatt smile, and like I said, the handsome.
I don’t know that he’s ever tested the limits of an audience as he does in Fences. His Troy Maxson is all but unforgivable in action and demeanor. Washington does not compromise or pander with the character. All the awful and ugly he lays bare. Yet, somehow, you still follow him. Hoping against hope until the very last second that he might redeem himself. That he would show just the slightest of kindnesses to those he has wronged.
It is an absolute magic trick to do that. To pull us forward as we are simultaneously repelled.
What’s more, is Washington directed the film too. A part of the movie’s quality that’s been overlooked because of the performances, but oh so unfairly. This is an elegantly lensed movie. Most of which takes place either inside of one house or in the small backyard just off the steps. There are complex tracking shots, fearless close ups, and an excellent use of what probably isn’t natural lighting, but feels like it.
As well, despite the size and showcase the film provides Washington, he gives an inherently generous performance. While this movie mostly belongs to he and the staggering Viola Davis (whose Rose is the broken beating heart of the film, and every bit his equal), each of the supporting roles are given plenty of room to shine, despite smallish onscreen time. Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain damaged brother, Gabe is particularly revelatory in just a handful of scenes.
Again though, this is the Denzel and Viola show. As you watch what’s been telegraphed as the “big scene” in the previews, where Rose finally unloads on Troy for years of selfish disregard, Washington starts out hot, but as the scene unfolds, he pulls back. Tiny little bits per second. Ceding the floor to Davis who gathers her considerable forces and unleashes a storm of anguish that leaves not only Troy and the viewer devastated, but probably the birds on the trees surrounding their home too. Only an actor of great confidence and a director of uncommon understanding would know to do that. In this case, they just happen to be the same person.
Much has been made about Fences and the experience of black people in America. And much should. August Wilson’s play is rightly revered for it’s specificity on race and the toll it took (and continues to take) on people of color. The thing is, there is still a universality to the movie’s appeal. It is not limited by demographics. All you have to do is know someone whose life didn’t turn out the way they planned. Whose dreams never met fruition. And whose bad choices were birthed from a constant sadness and rage that is obvious to the one holding onto it and those on the receiving end of it. Even if neither wants to recognize it fully.
As I implied earlier, Fences is a magical film. It’s a magic that hurts though. Like a deep bruise that shows not on your body, but lives behind the breast bone, just a few inches from the surface, inside a heart that knows not how to reach out, nor how to take in.
It is an extraordinary film. The kind that fails the best efforts of one’s words.
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