Fences (2016) – from the Great White Way to the Silver Screen

Many years ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform the August Wilson play Fences on Broadway. Fast forward a few years later, imagine my surprise (?) when news came out that they would be reprising their roles for the big screen. Of course, the cynical side of me immediately went to this being the ideal awards-bait. This status was further assured when the release date was announced. Would I allow this cynicism to deter me from seeing what is sure to be a cinematic display of tour-de-force acting (which it was, by the way)? Well, obviously I am writing about it, so I did not let this transient thought dissuade me one bit.

With a screenplay from the late playwright August Wilson and directed by star Washington, Fences is part six of Wilson’s ten-part saga (“The Pittsburgh Cycle”), which chronicles the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century.

Set in the late 1950’s, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh sanitation employee married to Rose (Davis), devoted wife and mother to their teenage child Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is a former Negro League baseball player who showed a great deal of promise until his life takes an ill-fated turn. It is this life-altering event which forever changes Troy and leaves him with a great deal of “bitterness,” a bitterness which becomes more apparent as our story progresses.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. By all accounts, given the time and circumstances under which they live, the Maxsons have a rather ordinary and stable home life, which includes visits from Troy’s recently departed (from their shared home) disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, reprising his stage role) and Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russel Hornsby, reprising his stage role) from a previous marriage. Another member of the extended Maxson clan is Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his stage role), Troy’s coworker and best friend.

As earlier mentioned, eventually the combined impact of Troy’s feelings about the course of his life and a myriad of forces from the outside world collide and manifest themselves, impacting the internal life of the family; I will leave it to you to see how fences come into play.

Beyond the literal and/or figurative meaning of “fences,” we have a dynamic family drama which unfolds beyond our eyes. Maybe because of my nearly seven-year separation from seeing the stage production, I was able to simply watch and enjoy without playing that mental game of “checking off the plot points.” Not doing this allowed more than a handful of scenes to really pack a punch and emotionally resonate with me.

One thing that always makes or breaks a movie adaptation of a stage play for me is the way in which the environment that surrounds the central action is presented on screen. In other words, how much the “visual world” of the story is represented on film. At its worst, it can go either the direction of being too isolated (maintaining the “single set” feeling stage plays are generally confined to) or go way too big – this usually feels like the film production is all too aware of matters of scale and therefore attempts to remedy this by expanding the movie to what they perceive will make it better suited for the cinema. Fences strikes this balance quite well. In fact, such a personal, intimate family drama lends itself to this visual storytelling.

One final point I had made note to point out as I reviewed Fences was the physicality of Mr. Washington. This is more a credit to how well he has aged over the years than anything else in my opinion, but I do remember thinking to myself as I watched the stage show, that he looked a little young in the role. So fast forward to the film adaptation, and I have to say that just the look of him really seemed to suit the character of a world-weary Troy Maxson much better.

As I reflect on these words, I really did not anticipate that this post was going to heavily rely on me comparing my stage and screen experiences, but I guess that was inevitable, especially as I enjoyed each in its particular medium. Not sure when (and if) this play will ever return to the Great White Way, but in case it doesn’t I highly recommend you take the opportunity to catch it at your local movie theater.

Denzel Washington Birthday Poll

'Flight' Japan Premiere - Assignment For Paramount

Well, well Denzel turned 59 today. My ‘homeboy’ (we are both from the city of Mount Vernon, NY) has made quite a career for himself. As I was putting together this post in celebration of his birthday, I realized just how remarkable and lauded. I wanted to put to my readers a poll of which of his films is your favorite. Originally I wanted the list to be no longer than say, 5-6 titles, but with DOZENS of screen credits , the list ballooned to 10. And this is where I left it, even if I did want to add a few more to the poll list. So without further ado, please mark which of his movies you consider your favorite. I know, it is like being asked to pick your favorite kid, but you know you have one [wink].

Favorite Denzel Washington Film?

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It would not be fair for me to ask you about your favorite film without me putting my two cents in. And no, my selection it is not “Alley Mugger #1” from 1974’s Death Wish (Source: Internet Movie Database). I think I will go with his turn as anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. Why, you may ask? In this pre-megastardom role, one could tell that this was to be his trajectory. I had to watch the film in high school and what resonated with me above all else was that when he was taken out of the film, the story felt empty, hollow, flat – such was the impact of his presence and performance. A magnetic talent that is to be sure and who has entertained us ever since.

So as the poll indicates, if I left off any of your favorite films, tick “Other” and hit the Comments section and let us know what your fave Denz flick is.

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Devil in a Blue Dress

This week’s “overlooked” film is the 1995 neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress. The film was directed by Carl Franklin and starred Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals and in a scene stealing performance, Don Cheadle.

The film was based on author Walter Mosley’s  series of crime novels featuring the private detective, Easy Rollins.

The plot is straightforward – Easy (Washington) is a down on his luck WWII vet who has been enlisted to search for a missing woman (Beals).  Along the way he meets several characters and as with most noirs/crime dramas, nothing is what it appears and there are several twists and turns along the way.

The performances are all solid but as I previously mentioned, every moment Don Cheadle is on screen as “Mouse” is an entertaining moment indeed.

Cinematically I was transported to a 1940’s south central Los Angeles which differed greatly from what was (at the time) part of my cinematic experience with the area  (Colors, Boyz N The Hood, and the like). Devil in a Blue Dress was a slickly styled, well paced film from a skilled director who previously directed another film that flew under the radar, 1992’s One False Move.

To this day, I am still a little disappointed that we did not get another one (or more) films out of the Easy Rollins franchise.