“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.


“Safe House”–A Safe Bet

It seems only fair to see a dick-flick after having recommended rom-coms for Valentine’s Day.  And did I pick a winner–my husband gave it a 10, which is very rare for him.  The movie is “Safe House” and it stars and is produced by the exceptional Denzel Washington.

No ordinary action-pic–although it has ample car chases, staccato bursts of exploding bombs, violent fights with guns and knives, and impossible jumps from one rooftop to another–there are still enough surprising plot twists to keep you surprised throughout.

The story is fairly routine–I think Bruce Willis starred in a similar plot in “16 Blocks”  –an ex-CIA operative gone rogue (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) and a clueless “nube” as the novice CIA agent, Matt Weston   (Ryan Reynolds) who has to guard Frost in a safe house and bring him to headquarters (to report to bureaucrats played by Sam Shephard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson).  An extremely difficult task for Matt since Tobin is captured in South Africa, and Matt has only been assigned there for little more than one year.

Denzel Washington superbly underplays his character, allowing his face to communicate what his life as a CIA agent must have been like.  Matt doesn’t know whom to believe, but has respect for authority and for the CIA’s integrity.  This film is part “Bourne Identity” and part Frontline’s “Dark Side” fictionalized.  As the viewer you will be reminded of quite a few spy thrillers especially Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy-based film blockbusters. The cinematography is several magnitudes better than the usual special effects.  One helicopter shot of their SUV speeding down a desolate road is a work of art, a beautiful abstract print in still motion.

What did I like best about this movie?  I wouldn’t give it a 10, but a much-better-than-average 8-to-8.5. It comes down to character development–and though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us.  What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about? Furthermore, when does that well-intentioned agent say “enough is enough” in a heroic exculpatory act in the name of his or her own integrity and personal life?  (Think “Fair Game” reviewed November 28, 2010). This film tries to deal with these questions–and it is superior to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as well as others in this genre.  A superb cast actualizes the promise of the tale. The ending sets up the audience to expect a sequel and with this first narrative, I hope there is one.