Fences features a Denzel Washington who is finally directing something I can’t criticize on any level. His previous efforts – Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters – were fair, but Fences finds him on a mission. Well, technically, it’s not a new mission. All of his previous efforts have been mission based as well, but those were efforts whose goals leaned heavily into acting as justifications for allowing Washington to sit in the director’s chair than anything else. Not so with Fences, first because no one can question Washington’s wishes at this point in his career, and second because he has a relationship with the material that extends back many years. Fences is what black cinema looks like when it’s being done by people who have mastered the craft of moviemaking behind and in front of the camera, and it has no interest in catering to white gaze. Don’t be too shocked: black film just did this with Moonlight a few months ago, so you might want to start getting used to the feeling.
Fences is arguably August Wilson’s best play. I only qualify it because The Piano Lesson also exists. In the same breath, Wilson was arguably one of the best playwrights America has ever produced. So when it comes to deciding whether or not you should go see Fences, here’s the math: the best play by one of the best playwrights is produced by one of the best acting teams that could be conceived, doing the best acting of their respective careers with material they already had great facility with.
Here is a statement that sounds like an opinion but is, in actuality, a fact: Fences is the best acting Denzel Washington has ever done. I say this having watched every frame of film the man has ever graced (or, in the case of a few even he would admit were suspect, disgraced). In Fences, he removes his traditional self-awareness and fallback tics, stretches the boundary of his tongue, uses his body, carries long passages of time by himself on numerous occasions, and his timing has never been more perfect.
Then there is Viola Davis, who makes even garbage like The Help tolerable for as long as it takes to find meme fodder. Given the script as it stands, long-suffering matriarch Rose Maxson doesn’t have a lot to play with here. She doesn’t carry as much screen time, and what time she is afforded is largely spent being a nag, a servant or crying. She is only afforded the kind of noteworthy outbursts one finds in the trailer a few times in the story, and while they are powerful moments, this isn’t largely a story about a marriage. Davis had to sell every inch of film she’s on, and she nails it, hangs it on the wall, and charges everybody admission to come see her new piece, “Making Denzel Washington invisible.” Davis is always amazing (yes, always), but in Fences she shows you what she can really do when the kids gloves are off and she’s not trying to spin gold out of the lint of forty minutes of Shonda Rimes clickbait.
You don’t really ever forget that Fences was first a play, but that’s not a distraction in this translation. The scenery is intimate because the story is intimate, rarely breaking out of the setting of the Maxson household. The whole exercise feels like peeping in on actual home, learning its spaces and rules, subscribing to the mythology presented in its tchotchkes and sly religious iconography, and the gravity of its inhabitants. You are charmed almost wholesale by Washington’s patriarch, knowing that beneath his Miller Time veneer, a sad and brutal storm is coming.
Fences is ultimately a story about a man struggling with a lifetime of the results of toxic masculinity, a glaring warning sign disguised as a coming of age story that picks apart a man created by an unjust world that refused troy Maxson’s gifts and potential in his youth, trapping him in his emotions and understanding of the world, and whom circumstance saw fit to make something else.
There are a lot of non-film statements that Fences makes beyond the tale it tells. #OscarSoWhite will be revisited when nomination time rolls around in a couple of months, and by my count, this film is due a minimum of five nods. Fences is what happens when black artists eschew the white gaze, or rather, what happens when they do and also have the means to play ball at the same level. It is the kind of film black writers design and black actors want to act in, but are rarely afforded opportunities to do so. Washington has taken it upon himself, late in his career, to make the films with every resource he has at his disposal, and Fences is a masterstroke of not only cinematic proportions, but political ones as well.