Saturday, December 24, 2016


By George M. Thomas

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in FENCES.

I have little problem admitting because of my ethnic make-up (predominantly African-American) that FENCES probably hits with more emotional force than any other film this year. That Troy (Denzel Washington), the film’s protagonist, is also a father makes this examination in race, social justice and morality that much more compelling.

That Troy (Denzel Washington), the film’s protagonist, is also a father makes this examination in race, social justice and morality that much more compelling.

Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which he adapted for the screen before his death, and directed by Washington, FENCES lays bare what it means to be a black male in America. 

That it’s set in the 1950s means little. Some things remain true despite the passage of time.  Perhaps that’s why Wilson set the play in Pittsburgh in 1953 when he wrote it in the early ‘80s.

Blacks were not equal in the eyes of the law as the Civil Rights Movement was still evolving. And though some, such as Troy, were allowed in the middle class, the opportunities didn’t come in the private sector; they did in the public sector as city workers.  In Troy’s case as a garbage man.

When society consigns you to the lower rungs of the class system and you’re black, one thing consumes you – maintaining what you have and who you are, and ensuring that any offspring understand what is necessary to do when they eventually leave the nest.

Call it imparting tough love.  Call it abuse.  Many of us call it reality.  There are times when dealing with my two sons what I say and how I act fall into all three categories.  Should it be that way?  Not really, but it’s that reality thing.

A fine line exists between providing all of the needs and a few of the extras without gifting entitlement in the process.  That’s why Troy, a deeply flawed individually, is so recognizable.

I see my grandfather in him.  I understand that the father that I never knew, based on stories I’ve heard from relatives, probably possessed some of the same traits, and my father-in-law certainly did.
That, however, is the beauty in Troy and his saint of a wife Rose (Viola Davis). The ability to relate to the struggles and their personal strife as they try to ensure their family’s ability to not only survive, but to thrive.

It may not always be the correct path.  Troy, for instance, doesn’t see any need for his son Cory to play football in high school, thus potentially costing him a college scholarship.  A former standout Negro League baseball player, he cannot get past the disappointment of being held back because of the color of his skin, projecting that disappointment upon his son in the hopes that he’s preventing it. Many such lessons greet the audience for FENCES, but while Washington does an admirable job with his third theatrical effort in the director’s chair, it's the performances that stand out.

Troy’s a complex jumble of emotions and motives and Washington does a wonderful job of bringing all of them out.  While the entire cast – take note of Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother, Gabriel – proves extraordinary, Davis elevates her role as Rose, bringing to the forefront the needed strength of the character along with her inherent nobility.  She’s completely memorable and any awards coming her way are owned.

Despite the heady stuff that FENCES presents, however, it remains a film about hope. That may be Washington’s greatest accomplishment in bringing it to the screen – allowing hope to rise from circumstances that are less than hopeful.

Director:  Denzel Washington
Cast:  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson
Studio:  Paramount Pictures
Rated:  PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references
Running time:  138 minutes
George’s rating: 3.5-of-4 stars

Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, and

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