Fences isn’t quite as good a movie as it is a play

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens December 25

The 2016 films tackling race have been almost uniformly bleak. Regardless of their undeniable quality, Moonlight, The Birth of a Nation and Loving are tough to watch for anyone with a brain or a heart. Even the more upbeat Hidden Figures doesn’t shy away from portraying workplace discrimination in the 60s at its most objectionable.

Fences has a different kind of bleakness. Discrimination here isn’t overt but — perhaps worse — it has been internalized.

Based on the 1983 play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson, Fences is widely considered a seminal portrayal of the African-American experience. Wilson managed to turn his opus into a screenplay before his death in 2005, but it took over a decade for Denzel Washington to finally get it to the big screen.

Washington pulls double duty as director and lead of the film. Troy Maxson is an embittered garbage man who blames every one of his shortcomings to the colour barrier. He could have played baseball professionally, but a stint in jail and his age got in the way. When his son has a scholarship opportunity, Troy crushes the kid’s dreams. This and other actions sour his relationship with his wife (Viola Davis), yet Troy remains stubbornly convinced he’s in the right.

Characters are seldom this developed and complex, and the Washington-Davis combo does justice to the material. The problem: it’s still a play. As a director, Denzel doesn’t take advantage of the cinematic possibilities and keeps the action limited to closed spaces. Without the immediacy of live theatre, Fences can be trying.

But there are worse films out there. Instead of popcorn, invest in a large coffee and you’ll be rewarded.