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Denzel Washington & Viola Davis Swing for the ‘Fences’

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CHICAGO – Viola Davis and Denzel Washington are actors who are likely to give plays adapted for the screen a good name. Their commitment to the material shines through in the new film “Fences.” Davis and Washington have a well worn familiarity with the characters –having portrayed them on Broadway in the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play.

The story centers on an aging African American couple in post-World War II Pittsburgh. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a former Negro League ballplayer who hit his prime before baseball’s color barrier was broken. Now he’s a garbage man making a living, but not much more, and carrying on about his glory days…nurturing the fantasy that he can still play, so as not to face reality. Troy’s wife is Rose (Viola Davis), who is clearly very fond of her husband, but can see right through his bluster to see what’s really eating him inside.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in ‘Fences’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Make no mistake, “Fences” bears all the hallmarks of its stagey past. This is essentially the “play on screen,” complete with a period setting largely confined to a couple of locales, plus social messages and long speechifying, which clearly spells out each of the characters worldviews and beliefs. And as sure as the night follows day, audiences will be witness to see those clearly spelled out beliefs tested and tried – by whatever trials life and the late playwright (who also adapted the screenplay before he passed away) can throw at them over the next couple of hours.

Denzel Washington does provide his character with more than a collection of monologues, accents and verbal tics. He makes Troy sound lived in, as though the words came out of the very marrow of his bones. The same goes for Viola Davis…she gets just as much emotion and power or even more with far less. While Washington’s Troy asserts his authority or makes a ruckus about their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) not doing his chores or wasting time playing football, Davis’ Rose barely seems to get a word in edgewise. But when she does, oh boy, does she make it count – soaking her expressions and words in the real pain, disappointment, joy, and struggles of life. Both performances are the type where the actors seem to put every ounce of effort on the screen, and it shows.

The film does attempt to flesh out the play’s settings a bit by actually filming in Pittsburgh, so this is not a film that seems to take place in a series of anonymous rooms, even though the characters seem restless and always on the move without really going anywhere. But it’s not without its problems either. Washington and Davis are the strongest pieces, and they have good supporting cast – many who came with them from the 2010 Broadway adaptation. However, Mykelti Williamson seems to be channelling Forrest Gump, taken down a few IQ points, for his performance as Washington’s brain damaged brother.

Jovan Adepo and Washington in ‘Fences’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

“Fences” covers well worn emotional and social material as we see the characters of Washington (who also directs the film) and Davis struggle with changing race relations, regrets, mistakes and disagreements about child rearing, as their son begins to find his own way in the world. It’s more familiar, nostalgic and more comfortable to approach than some other awards contenders, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. And if you never got a chance to see the play, this is certainly the next best thing.

”Fences” opens everywhere on December 25th. Featuring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Screenplay adapted by August Wilson, from his stage play. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com contributor Spike Walters


© 2016 Spike Walters, HollywoodChicago.com

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