Fences (2016) – “That’s the way that go.”
I wrote a little piece about the Oscar noms for Theater Fans Manila (shameless plug) and one person commented that Fences and Moonlight were ‘boring and bleak’. Well! I felt challenged. I HAD to see Fences. (Maybe Moonlight” some other time.)
And you know what? It was the furthest from boring. And bleak is not the word I’d use. It’s true that it isn’t saccharine like some movies out there *coughLaLaLandcough*. Because it’s raw and powerful. It’s not a feel-good movie in any sense, but it’s so well-made and tight, with every word and every scene carrying such weight, that you feel good just from its sheer brilliance.
It’s the story of an African-American man in 1950s America, struggling to live life with his own moral code and how this shapes his relationships with his wife and children. It’s brilliant because of the dialogue. From the first scene, you can tell that it was adapted from a play. You can just imagine it being performed on the stage, with just the main characters conversing. The action is mostly limited to the protagonist’s backyard. But because of every word that comes out of the characters’ mouths, you get to know them and their motivations so well.
And it’s brilliant mostly because of Denzel Washington’s performance. It hits you with an almost physical force, an “oof” you feel in your gut the moment he speaks. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a working-class man married to Rose (Viola Davis), father to Lyons (from a first marriage) and Cory, best friend to Jim Bono. In the beginning, you root for Troy because he’s a simple man simply trying to do right by his family. But as the movie progresses, you realize he’s not a good man after all. He can’t support his son Cory’s football dreams. He can’t even support his older son Lyons’ career as a musician because that’s not what responsible men do for a living. When he tells Lyons and Bono about his father beating him half-dead when he was young boy, you think that explains why he can’t really show affection for his boys.
Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you!
But more and more of Troy’s secrets come out, and it turns out that not only is he emotionally unavailable as a father, he’s not that good a husband either. In fact, towards the end of the movie, you realize Troy is actually an asshole.
Viola Davis also holds her own with Washington. In the beginning her Rose is a quiet figure, submissive to Troy and primarily in the background as Troy holds court. As Rose says,
That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave some room for me… I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine.
Her arc mirrors Troy’s: as Troy’s sheen fades, Rose’s shines brighter. We begin to see how strong she is. You start rooting for her, especially with everything she does for Troy even after he betrays her. She made her choice and she lived with it.
There’s hardly any score in the movie, hardly any change in the location. It’s all about the characters. Everything we know about them is because of the words they speak – not because they are telling us what they are, but because those words show us their choices. Yet it is not bleak at all. And definitely not boring. Washington and Davis’s performances compel you to stay and pay attention. And in the end, you wonder: what am I supposed to feel for Troy now? Is he a good man? Or did he act the way he did because he just didn’t know any better? Why did everybody still gravitate towards him? So many questions! And it’s not because you’re unsatisfied, but because your mind is opened just a little bit more.
Some movies reward you for the time you invest in them. And Fences is one of those. It inspires because it is what it is, not because it forces you to be inspired. This for me is a worthy Best Picture contender. Some others, not so much. And it’s a pity that gloss and hype will win over substance. Oh well. As the last line of the film says (and as life shows us in reality),
That’s the way that go.
Featured photo: Paramount Pictures