“Fences”–In or Out?

 

Fences“Some people build fences to keep people out–and other people build fences to keep people in”.

The film “Fences” (released Christmas Day 2016) is based on the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and screenplay by the brilliant playwright August Wilson (1945-2005).

“Fences” is set in 1950’s Pittsburgh.  Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) had been a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues in a time before Jackie Robinson. After serving time in prison he meets Rose (Viola Davis) who believes in him and devotes her life to their family: his older son Lyons from a previous relationship and their son, Cory.

The drama is timeless and the quiet visual cinematography does not seem to date the place or the power of broken dreams in lives led on the fumes of racism.   “Fences” wisely employs most of the cast of its Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival. The actors’ familiarity with the characters translates into not only dizzying, heartbreaking performances but also the astonishing adaptation of their talent from theater to screen.

The transition from award-winning stage performances to equally worthy performances on film, the adjustment in acting techniques is astounding. Viola Davis on stage was so agitated, she looked like she was having a seizure as she gave her powerful soliloquy. On the silver screen, the camera caresses her face in a painful series of close-ups almost too devastating to watch as Viola Davis unforgettably expresses the way her husband has failed to see her for who she really is.   When the camera finally pulls back (as we viewers also wish to pull back), she is perfectly still.

Denzel Washington is less physical as well in the film version. The psychology of his damaged character lies beneath the surface as the camera lingers on his charm–and his luminescent smile– smothering his dark side. We see why his wife Rose would fall in love with him—and stay in spite of his infidelity and abusive nature. Parts of “Fences” are almost unendurable for the tragic nature of each character. Rose loves him, but once he breaks not only her heart but the rest of the family she protects, she icily destroys him: “You are a womanless man”.

Fathers acting out their pain onto their children appear throughout literature and film, and this quiet catastrophe is a masterpiece. We are born into a family and our family is born into us.   But this thought exemplifies Rose’s disbelief in the inevitability of this cycle. Rose represents hope.

August Wilson leaves the question open: When are we inheriting the sins of our parents and when do we move on? This is our legacy as humans. Can there be beauty and joy out of pain and suffering?

Note: Wilson wrote ten plays over two decades, portraying African-American life in Pittsburgh with a lyricism and poetry both Shakespearean in its conflicts and resonant of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in its scenes from a marriage and father-son conflict. Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” also comes to mind in its pioneering depiction of African American lives on the theatrical stage.  Some of Wilson’s other plays will be adapted for television by HBO and his play “Jitney” will come to Broadway this spring.

 

“Prisoners”: Kidnapping Your Mind

 

PrisonersThis provocative film opens with a father and son hunting in the woods, the Lord’s Prayer recited in voiceover.  The viewer sees the father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) as a deeply religious man, a carpenter who believes in family values and the safety of his community.  When his little girl and her friend go missing on Thanksgiving Day, the world he has believed in is destroyed. “Prisoners” is a powerful tale of human nature gone awry.  What are parents capable of in their darkest moment, when their worst nightmare happens?

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put in charge of the investigation and immediately arrests a mentally compromised driver of an RV, Alex Jones (the mesmerizing Paul Dano), because his vehicle had been parked nearby.   However, due to a lack of physical evidence, Jones is released.

“Prisoners” is not for the fainthearted.  Although violent and disturbing, the twists in the multiple crimes are riveting and the clues are tautly woven together.  Detective Loki pursues different leads while both girls’ families begin to unravel.  Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) is seen mostly in fetal position, sedated and semi-comatose from the loss.  The other parents in grief and desperation (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) raise serious moral issues but the viewer is left with questions unanswered.  In some ways, the extreme suspense of “Prisoners” contributes to an equally disturbing portrait of characters who are convinced they have morality on their side.Hugh Jackman

 

 

Although an unusually long film (153 minutes), “Prisoners” sucks the viewer in from the first frame.  Its portrayal of the  desperate nature of people who believe they are good, righteous God-fearing people with strong moral convictions is nothing short of dazzling.   When their view of the world turns upside down, all hell breaks loose. No more can be said about the plot, without giving away too much.  That being said,  this film is a model for screenplays, with unexpected tensions in almost every scene.  While some threads of the plot are not neatly tied together (perhaps edited out), the substance of this thriller with its astounding cast will kidnap your mind.

 

“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.