2017-02-19 06:01

Johannesburg - Fences is that rare thing – a mainstream film that unpacks the daily life of a black, working class family. It takes us inside the marriage of Troy and Rose, brought to screen in Oscar-nominated performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, respectively.

Adapted from August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer prize-winning play, the film sees Troy work as a waste collector in 50s Pittsburgh in the US. He is full of resentment because he believes he was blocked from playing Major League Baseball because he’s black.

The real reason Troy never got anywhere, according to his voice of reason, Rose, is because he took up the sport too late after serving a lengthy prison sentence.

“You were too old,” she tells him – one of many reality checks that go in one ear and out the other. Despite Washington’s charisma, the character Troy can be quite intolerable.

He is increasingly bitter and cynical as he develops a troubled relationship with his estranged son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who he cautions against pursuing a career as a musician. Things are not much better between him and his smart, sensitive younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose chances of reaching the National Football League, Troy believes, are slim because discrimination is still rife in professional sports.

Troy’s terrible truth is that he risks losing the trust of both his sons because of his own fear of failure.

Sticking firmly to the play’s setting, the film is mainly restricted to Troy’s back garden and kitchen, where the painful scenes of domestic life take place. Not only does the film explore racial issues, it also explores themes such as love, success and death.

It’s important to note that ever more black male directors are exploring the fragility of their masculinity.

Troy is scared of dying, scared about his illicit relationship with another woman and scared his sons will turn on him the way he once turned on his own dad. He nags Cory to help him mend a fence, and complains that some fences keep people in and others out.

The performances are magnificent, but often heavy, and you can see that the dialogue would work better on a stage.

Washington has not done enough to open up the drama and adapt it for the big screen and explore its cinematic potential.

But then again, if Fences were more cinematic, it might have lost the intensity and concentration of a great story.

Don’t be surprised if you feel the film is a bit suffocating and heavy. Luckily, the storyline is so bombastic that one is forced to respect the integrity of the performances, and there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Truth be told, the themes that surround this family’s journey are still true for a lot of people today.

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