Friday, January 27, 2017

‘FENCES’ BREAKS US DOWN WITH POWERHOUSE PERFORMANCES

By Dominique Paul Noth 


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences"
Fences is a hybrid -- transferring a stage giant to the big screen while retaining the structural outlines of the stage. That may work against it in the “best film” sweepstakes where originality is honored but it is working for it in terms of epic sweep and general audience response. 

Director Denzel Washington’s fidelity to the power of August Wilson’s play, adding  perfectly placed visual images, street scenes  and editing to deepen the overall poetry, deserves considerable recognition. Being Oscar nominated reflects that even though it also speaks to the Academy’s sensitivity to racial correctness.    

It could well mean a best actor Oscar for Washington, who invests 1950s garbage-man Troy with a defiant garrulous ego battling  weakness of the flesh, fighting against God and his own humanity as he tries to control the  world. Or rather his home, which he rules as a castle.

His backyard becomes a place to drink gin and subdue souls. His compassion and greed combine in his treatment of his brain-damaged brother, played full throttle by Mykelti Williamson.  His refusal to bend to human instincts is demonstrated in his treatment of sons by different mothers, played with straight honesty by Jovan Adepo and William Hornsby.

You don’t realize until the end how much desire, decency, loss and tragedy have been exposed in this journey. 

But he has a co-star. Rose as his wife doesn’t just move in his shadow though the production starts that way. She comes to dominate the screen with her natural manner and caring nature --  from amused tolerance to angry victim to accepting mother.  No one in the Oscar supporting actress category comes anywhere close  – definitely assuring a win for Viola Davis, though I think her presence in this category is something of a travesty. 

There are good performances here – Naomie Harris as the addicted mother in Moonlight, Nicole Kidman as the adoptive mother in Lion, Michelle Williams as the ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea and as a nod to Hidden Figures by picking Octavia Spencer, but they pale against Davis.

Trade reports say she chose  the supporting category. Perhaps she didn’t want to oppose good friend Meryl Streep, or new media sensation Emma Stone of La La Land,  though in that case she would have won hands down on degree of difficulty.  Certainly there is threat in the luminescence of Ruth Negga,  an emerging important actress in a neglected film, Loving, and certainly a bit of Oscar celebrity fawning for a performance I didn’t flip over, Natalie Portman as  Jackie.   The leaves two acting greats to consider – foreign legend Isabelle Huppert in the little seen Elle and Streep, who discounts herself as I have. Huppert could now sneak away with a category  Davis deserved to be in.

Her performance carries “Fences” as much as  Washington’s  – and more, in terms of liking and believing in him. Washington’s dissection of Troy – from a great ballplayer who missed his moment in the sun to a wannabe family man to an easily tempted ladies man and then into painful episodes as demanding and demeaning father – has as an inescapable rhythmic baseline in Wilson’s  language and insights. It’s a part that rivals Willie Loman of “Death of a Salesman” in dimension but with an added muscularity. 

As an actor even more than a director (who serves his cast with sensitivity)  Washington embraces and lives the human being that reveals  Wilson’s greatness. It is an acting performance that serves as  a welcome change from his recent screen persona,  which has become somewhat repetitious of late.

The price of fidelity to a role he also played on Broadway is some of the staginess cannot be disguised and the director cannot resist giving extra weight to the secondary deeper meanings (Troy’s fight is as much against the heavens as it is his own weaknesses; his brother’s trumpet and calls to St. Peter have a larger than naturalism purpose).

With  easy warmth and knowing directness, Stephen Henderson as he did onstage with Washington plays Bono, the best friend and good advice giver who by the end has learned to keep his distance.  It is because of Davis’ performance that we don’t similarly pull away.

The strength of this movie really comes from Wilson, lovingly transplanted by Washington and company.  Whenever we drift into contemplating the characters or merely admiring the artistry, the film leaps into a moment of raw power that wrestles us into submission. 

Other recent film reviews include La La Land, Lion and Moonlight, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie and Hidden Figures.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.