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You can’t discount the achievements of Denzel Washington’s new film adaptation of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Fences. He and co-star Viola Davis give performances for the ages (or, at least for the 2017 Oscars) as a black, working-class couple in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Troy (Washington) is an illiterate, 53-year-old sanitation worker who still nurses bitter regret that bad luck and bigotry prevented him from achieving baseball greatness. Rose (Davis), a long-suffering Proverbs 31 wife if ever there was one, is the lid that keeps the cauldron of tension between Troy and their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), from boiling over. That is, until Troy prevents Cory from being recruited by a college football scout.
Troy’s motives are complex, and much of the family interaction centers on what compels him to put such a fence around his son’s dreams. On some level he is, as Cory suspects, driven by jealousy, by fear of being replaced as the “big man” in the house. But he’s also driven by love, by wanting to keep his son’s life from becoming characterized, like his own, by disappointment. Then there’s the simple, tragic reality that the sins of Troy’s father have visited him, and now visit his own son. (Fences is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, bad language, and some suggestive references.)
For all the movie’s dramatic insight about the barriers real and imagined we cast around our lives, and about how focusing on self warps family relationships, it fails to engage as a story rather than as a dramatic exercise. Washington’s constant speechifying feels inauthentic, and despite award-worthy performances from nearly all the players, I couldn’t help thinking people only sound like this in Pulitzer Prize–winning plays.
On a stage, dialogue as symbol can work. Movies require something more natural for audiences to lose themselves in—something Fences doesn’t manage.