Denzel Washington’s overwrought performance defeats Fences

FENCES (Denzel Washington) - 139 minutes; opens December 25, see listing. Rating: NN Back in 2010, Denzel Washington won a Tony.


FENCES (Denzel Washington) – 139 minutes; opens December 25, see listing. Rating: NN

Back in 2010, Denzel Washington won a Tony Award for playing the lead in August Wilsons Fences and, based on this unsubtle film version, the actor must still think he’s onstage. He struts, hollers and shouts so loudly, it’s like he’s trying to reach the audience at the back of a theatre.

His Troy Maxson is the kind of character who exists only in high art. A 1950s Pittsburgh garbageman who coulda been a contenda back when he was a promising baseball player in the Negro leagues just before Jackie Robinson made history, he wants to make damn sure his son (Jovan Adepo) doesn’t get his own hopes up about a sports career.

Troy’s stubborn and principled, but oh, he’s also flawed, as evidenced by his guilt over his mentally challenged war-veteran brother (Mykelti Williamson) and the affairs he’s kept secret from his long-suffering wife (Viola Davis).

Because Washington himself directs, he fails to rein in his performance. Dialogue that might work onstage feels artificial on film, and Wilson’s symbols come across as clunky and obvious, especially when there’s not much to look at.

What makes this variation on The Great Santini bearable is Davis, who channels a lifetime of pain, heartbreak and compromise into one unforgettable scene.

***

Washington delivers the kind of showy performance that the Academy loves (it got him his second Oscar for Training Day). So a nomination is a given. And buzz is strong in the supporting actor category for Mykelti Williamsons manipulative performance as an angelic, disabled war vet. More deserving than both is Davis’s quiet, restrained turn as a long-suffering wife. Her tearful Oscar clip moment is the heart of the film. Since Washington also directs, and the academy loves that versatility, don’t count out best pic and directing nods. Whatever the result, this year’s awards won’t be a whitewashed affair, and that’s a good thing.

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