Hey all... I love Filmspotting, the podcast, and just heard about this discussion board. I just wrote this review of Fences (with bits of Moonlight sprinkled in), on my blog at http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com
. It's not a film review site, but I do have some film reviews on it.
Black Lives Matter in Denzel Washington's Adaptation of August Wilson's 'Fences' and Jenkins' 'Moonlight'
Two of the best films of 2016 are Moonlight and Fences, both films about black characters from black writers and directors. Despite that similarity, both films are quite different in style and execution. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight (which I wrote about here and here) features strikingly beautiful and poetic cinematography, and much of the conflict comes from a lead character who is so repressed that you ache for him. In contrast, Washington's direction of Fences exchanges Moonlight's dreamy fluidity for a sturdy realism. The color palette is much more subdued, and the gregarious protagonist is more oppressed than he is repressed.
But a striking similarity between both films is their collective proclamation that black lives matter. The characters in both Fences and Moonlight are coping with the traumas of both their pasts and the legacies of slavery and American racism. They are remarkable not because they are superheroes or historical figures or have amazing things happen to them, but because they strive and struggle to overcome a world stacked up against them, and, in these filmmakers' hands, this struggle depicting the endurance of black people in America is both painful and beautiful.
Washington's take on August Wilson's classic 1987 play is as reverential an adaptation of a source text as one is ever going to find. After 16 years of teaching the play multiple times a day, and a half-dozen times seeing it on stage, I know the play (my favorite) well: "like the back of my hand," I tell my 9th grade students before I score their performances, which must be memorized. I relate this to say that I don't think Washington (or the late Wilson, when he wrote the film script) changed the play's script at all. I noted a couple of lines added when Troy tells Cory to put on his helmet and strap it up after he throws the helmet at Troy, and another brief one I describe later, but this is it. It is almost word for word.
Along with this faithfulness to the script, Washington's direction itself also propels August Wilson's words to the forefront. Most of the action takes place in the Maxsons' tiny backyard and small house -- all packed with remarkable period details -- and any temptation to create scenes away from the house are mostly avoided. There is no flashback to the white furniture salesman or a fantasy sequence of Death with a white robe on; there is no Alberta courtship moment or a dramatic hospital childbirth scene. A scene in which Troy is waiting to speak to his bosses about the discrimination black garbagemen face is added, and effectively: away from his home, Troy's largeness is subdued, the barriers he faces in his life more pronounced. In that building, Troy seems small. Additionally, scenes in a bar (presumably Taylor's) and on the cramped streets reflect the working-class black neighborhood in which the Maxsons reside.
Despite his many accolades for playing the role on Broadway, I still had some reservations about Denzel Washington as Troy. This clip comparison between Washington and the great James Earl Jones (a clip comparison I use every year teaching) shows a vast difference between the two interpretations of the character. It might be the audience, but there's a sense of fear in that scene that I think Jones establishes, whereas Denzel mocks his son and gets laughs. For me, that's not Troy Maxson. I was much happier with his other scenes on Youtube, though, and was pleased to watch the trailer of Fences and Denzel performing that same "Liked you?" monologue with the gravity that I think the moment requires, though, and, honestly, there is no one else working today would would be as well-cast as Troy.
By the end of the film, any reservations I had about Denzel Washington playing Troy Maxson were gone. When I think of the performances of this movie, though, Denzel's strikes me as the 4th or 5th best performance, which I think is a sign of his great direction and handling of his actors. Denzel's Troy Maxson is many things I want Troy to be: bitter, funny, charismatic, sad. I still think he's too smiley and comfortable and, for me, never disappears from being Denzel Washington, though it's still a powerful and soulful performance.
However, it's Viola Davis who still registers the most, even four days after I've seen the film, as I've replayed in my mind the choices she makes with that role time and time again. Her performance as Rose Maxson is so commanding that I can imagine a whole other film from her perspective; Wilson is sometimes accused of underwriting roles for women, but Davis's take on Rose shows her to be as fully fleshed out a character as Troy is. Her performance of the "I've been standing with you" speech is revelatory; it's not just the naturalistic snot on her face that we are used to from powerful Viola Davis performances, but it's the other touches as well -- the movement, the subtle weakening of her legs (I gasped), the eye contact. Her Rose is a force of nature, relegated to and barely contained within her repressed role as a black woman in the 1950s.
When Rose screams, "What about my life?" to her husband, we are confronted with what I think is one of Washington's theses for this film: the affirmation and celebration of the dignity of black lives -- not only of a flawed and ambivalent man in Troy Maxson, but also of a black housewife who Viola Davis dares Troy, and us as the audience, to write off. With this film, that's not happening.
This movie certainly made me weepy, and the tear ducts started working with the appearance of Gabriel, who first appears in the play in Act I, Scene 3. Mykelti Williamson's performance is superb and subtle, playing a character who could have come off as a scenery chewer or Oscar bait. Instead, we feel the man's pain as well as his brain damage; Williamson eschews any desire to go over the top. The performance of the last scene is heartbreaking and triumphant, just as it should be. But the even bigger revelation for me was Jovan Adepo's performance as Cory. I'm often disappointed with "Cory"s in stage productions. Chris Chalk played Cory in the 2010 Broadway production, when he was around 32 years old; in the clips I have seen, it looks like he's in his 30s, which is double the actual age of Cory. On the other hand, while I can't find Adepo's age online, he looks like he's around 20 years old, able to play 16/17 years old as well as 25 years old, as the role necessitates.
But it's not just age appropriateness that makes Jovan Adepo's performance so terrific; it's that he just kills the scenes he is in. He does great playing off Denzel Washington in the climactic father-son fight scene, but my favorite moment of his is in the last scene of the play, when he's singing on the front porch with his impossibly cute kid sister, Raynelle. This is an important moment in the play, because it's when he decides to go to his dad's funeral, to not "play host" (as Wilson writes in the epigraph) to his father's sins. Adepo's breakdown during the moment captured everything we needed that character to feel in that moment, and was the first time during the film where my tears became a flood. In addition, earlier, there's a brief scene in which Cory decides on pursuing a career in the military; the characters of Gabriel and Cory really don't have any interactions in the play, but the film's inclusion of this moment creates a powerful parallel between uncle (his Uncle Gabe had half of his head blown off in the war, and the government only gave his family $3000 to live on after this happened) and nephew (Cory takes the same path as his uncle), and helps emphasize Wilson's theme exploring the cyclical lack of options for black men in America.
I'd also be remiss not to mention Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono, and Russell Hornsby as Lyons. Both actors convey the disappointment and love they have for Troy Maxson in soulful, unexpected ways. Henderson's rotund appearance and inability to move too quickly somehow makes him sadder, and makes those later scenes tragic (the scene between Troy and him in the bar is a classic stage 3 of Aristotle's tragic hero cycle), whereas Hornsby's heartbreaking eyes crystallize the rejection Lyons feels after his father refuses to watch him follow his dreams and play music, and, later, his own disappointment with himself for following the incarceration path of his father's that he had hoped to reject.
Washington's painstaking faithfulness to Wilson's script was the right path for this film, but this is far from merely a filmed stage play. The cinematography is fluid and the prominent use of the backyard and cramped house quarters help emphasize the barriers that Troy and the rest of the Maxsons endure in their lives. And it's only through words -- sometimes Troy's ebullient stories, sometimes Rose's demands to be heard, sometimes Troy's confrontations with death -- that can both illuminate these characters' endurance and represent pathways to overcome.Wilson's language is put to the forefront here, and it's a poetry of tenacity and vitality.
Indeed, this tenacity and vitality of black people is celebrated by both of these masterful film collaborations between black playwrights and directors. With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarrell Alvin McRaney compel us to emphasize and ache for Chiron, the protagonist; his fortitude and the defensive walls (fences) he builds around himself -- which crumble, ever so haltingly and heartbreakingly, in that last scene -- are why the film is so powerful, and why this protagonist, the likes of whom we have never seen on film before, is so worthy of our empathy. Similarly, in Fences, the collaboration between Washington and Wilson underscores the dignity of these working class black characters, of a man -- Troy Maxson -- who has seen life and racism put obstacle after obstacle in front of him, only then to subsequently put obstacle after obstacle between himself and the people he loves. The fences in Moonlight are (somewhat) traversed with honesty, connection, and, perhaps, love; in Fences, these barriers are overcome through the redemption that Troy achieves from the forgiveness of his wife, his son, his brother, and from perhaps God. His son's ability to reject some of the pain of American racism that his father passed on to him is ostensibly part of what get Troy into heaven.
Fences explores the generational influence of American racism on the life of men, and how women have to endure through it; Moonlight does the same, but adds drug addiction and the false safety of heteronormativity and tragic masculinity into the mix. Both celebrate the dignity of this struggle and the beauty and strength of black people in America.
Black Lives Matter in these films: everyday black lives, because the struggle for survival in America is that profound and worthy of examination. What a great year for film.