Directed by Denzel Washington
The Oscar race for Best Actor just got a little less black and white. When the Academy has a choice between an established, unsurprising star and an up-and-comer dark horse, they seem to prefer to give the prize to the guy who has less of a chance of being nominated again. In “Manchester by the Sea,” Casey Affleck gave an unexpectedly poignant performance as a grieving man struggling to make sense of his new life situation. But fifteen years after his only Oscar win, it’s Denzel Washington, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, a man who shocks nobody when he gives a great performance, who takes acting to the next level and earns the Oscar this year. “Fences,” which Washington also directs, is a master class in dramatic acting with Denzel at the front of the classroom. Not since Alonzo Harris in 2001’s “Training Day” has Washington felt more right for a role. Casey Affleck would deserve the year’s highest honor if it was given to him, but nobody earned it like Denzel Washington.
With a screenplay pulled mostly from the pages of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences” tells the story of the Maxsons, a working-class black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy (Washington) is a garbage man and former Negro League star, helping his wife Rose (Viola Davis) raise their son Cory (Joven Adepo), a football standout nearing the end of his high school career. “Fences” is about trying to get ahead when society won’t give you any favors. It’s a beautiful reminder of the powers and limitations of the human spirit.
Under Washington’s direction, Wilson’s drama is handled perfectly by the entire ensemble. Reprising their roles in the 2010 Broadway run of “Fences,” Washington and Viola Davis are marvels. Davis plays her role to the bone in one of the year’s most lived-in performances (a description I hate, but one that will let you understand exactly what I mean). Adepo shows his true star talent. “Fences” will be what we look back at when we reflect on what is sure to be an illustrious career for the young actor. Russell Hornsby, in a smaller role as Troy’s oldest son Lyons, is a standout. Nobody disappoints. Thanks to their Herculean efforts, Wilson’s drama earns a spot in the cinematic canon, certain to be viewed in high school and college classrooms across the country as a supplement to the original work.
Like so many of this year’s best films, “Fences” can be smotheringly melancholic. It’s a powerful emotional journey with timeless monologues regarding the many complexities of the human condition. It makes for a brisk 2 hours and 20 minutes. Denzel Washington might not get the credit he deserves, because the expectations we put on A-listers is so high. But that can’t take away from his next-level performance and third-time’s-a-charm directing effort. “Fences” swings for the fences.