-A Denzel-carried play adaptation that really works, and a surprisingly effective inspirational drama.

The confined set of a play, where it’s all about the actors being able to sell the story entirely on dialogue can transition, with the right performers, to film in a very unique way. Denzel Washington directs Fences, an adaptation of the August Wilson play about a lower-middle-class family in Pittsburgh. One of the most amazing things about this adaptation is that it keeps the integrity of a play, with the few sets that we get clearly an enclosed, stationary environment like on stage. It extends from a small house only into an enclosed back yard in a very confined atmosphere that makes a few of the characters seem very large because of how caged-in the sets feel. The well-realized characters only add to what is one of the best dramas of the year.

We follow a family just above the poverty line, led by the convict turned garbage-man Troy (Denzel Washington), a smart-mouthed, obnoxious, but patriarchal figure who provides for his family, but also is tough on his two sons, the poor musician Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and the teenage football player Cory (Jovan Adepo). His loyal and committed wife Rose (Viola Davis) is powerfully protective of her family, but also has clearly sacrificed a ton to make the family unit still work. Troy used to be a great baseball player in the Negro leagues, but was a little old to break into the majors once the Civil Rights Movement began. He swears by the formula of working a trade and making your money up front, while Cory’s dream of playing football really combats with that. As a tough-love father, situations escalate between the dreams-oriented kids and the practically oriented Troy. As a mother, Rose tries to be supportive, but begins to break as Troy grows increasingly frustrated with this life. Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) was injured in the war, and now collects disability because of his brain injury. He’s still part of the family. One of the common themes of the film is that Rose has asked Troy to build a fence in the back yard, which deals with the concept of keeping members of the family in or out.

Nothing about the production, in terms of editing or cinematography is particularly special. In fact, the film is purposefully stripped down to keep the feel of a play. The backyard looks immensely like a play set in the scenes where Troy works on the fence or talks with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson). It’s very enclosed and shot at a very unique angle. I think that this touch is part of what makes Fences so unique. The other piece that makes it really unique is the outward allegory about how the fence represents barriers between Troy’s idea of parenthood and employment and the reality of the two, causing a clear rift between him and his children, and later, with Rose. He often discusses the Grim Reaper and how he has fistfights with death. This is very fun and captivating to use some of these exaggerated ideas to represent how strange Troy is. Perhaps I need a second viewing to really narrow down what, exactly, the film wanted to accomplish with these ideas, but I think they worked on the surface.

The performances, finally, are fantastic. Denzel Washington is as good as he’s ever been as the tough, somehow likable, but also extremely flawed Troy. He talks incessantly throughout the entire movie but never gets annoying or overstays his welcome. We cling on every word and one-liner he says, often laughing at how eccentric he is. In turn, Viola Davis is excellent as Rose, clearly having been beat down by the obnoxiousness of her husband. She makes some powerful choices in this film, and she is as well characterized as any “wife” character that a movie like this has. Both are awards worthy.

The only flaw really is the length and how the story ties up with a bit of a cliche. Some of those lengthy scenes would work better as a play, but I think that it needed to be trimmed slightly as a film. Also, the allegory about the reaper and the final shot of the sun (you’ll know if you watch it) don’t really work, and step out of being a grounded drama. For the most part, however, this is a wonderfully acted, near-perfect drama.

 

4 stars

Fences (2016)

Genre: Drama

Director: Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Jovan Adepo

RT Score: 95%

 


There are times when an inspirational drama has enough real world weight and real world concerns that it eclipses its feel-good nature into something more, something that’s truly uplifting. By calling attention to a different, harsher, and more close-minded time, Hidden Figures takes us through a few characters and their struggle. It doesn’t, however, make us feel uncomfortable or demean viewers who may be potentially turned off by its purpose. It instead lifts all viewers up with it, a pretty spectacular display of mature film-making and real life application.

The film follows three African American employees of NASA, all who work for the connected ‘computing group’ that handles the numbers behind some of the theoretical physics. Russia has just gotten a man into orbit, and the United States does not want to be far behind. The most math-centric person of the three is Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), who accepts a position to do the calculations for the ideas put forward by the Space Task Group, run by a Mr. Harrison (Kevin Costner) and led by a rather close-minded physicist Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). She reviews the ideas and works on making the figures work and setting them into motion. She also begins seeing a local army figure, Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) a few years after her first husband’s passing that left her as a do-it-all mom for her three girls.

The second is the married and outspoken Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who works with the shuttle team to get it built correctly to go into space. She spends much of the movie being the most qualified on her team, and wishes to win a court petition to attend engineering classes at the all-white school in their native Virginia. Her husband (Aldis Hodge) is a bit more violent in the way he wishes to earn racial equality.

The third is Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), essentially the computing group’s supervisor who is not respected or paid like one. She quickly finds herself helping out with the building of the IBM, a math computer that can take away some of the man power at NASA. She is opposed by the white manager a building over, played by Kirsten Dunst.

As we go through the film, all of these characters are established fully, and the emotional weight of their struggle is really felt. Their qualifications are so impressive, and their treatment so unfair that we really sympathize with them. However, it’s not the outright insulting or making the audience feel uncomfortable that accomplishes this true sympathy. It’s played again through silence and restraint, where small actions make it very apparent that they aren’t treated fairly. A few people at NASA, who respect the work more than the blatant bias, such as Kevin Costner’s head-of-team figure, help change the attitudes of those around them.

There’s nothing particularly great about the music, which has gotten a ton of nominations, but the story itself and the execution are worth signing up for. It’s over two hours but it doesn’t feel it, with every second being either politically important or fascinating because of the space implications. I really enjoyed Hidden Figures and it’s one of the best Dramas of the year.

 

4.5 stars

Hidden Figures (2016)

Genre: Drama

Director: Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent)

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, and Jim Parsons

with: Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell, and Mahershala Ali

RT Score: 93%

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