Reprising their Tony Award-winning roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are arguably front-runners for acting Oscars. Yet “Fences” may have a difficult time bringing home the award for best picture.
Washington, who stars in and also directs this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his absence from this year’s list of director nominees will go down in Oscar history as regrettable), remains doggedly loyal to its theatrical roots. For this reason, the film should win the top Academy Award.
Where flashbacks or onscreen action could replace monologue, Washington and editor Hughes Winborne (“The Help,” “Crash”) refuse to cut. Instead, the unflinching camera moves in closer, expecting audiences to have the patience to tolerate the discomfort of such raw emotion onscreen. The result is a more intimate connection — one theatergoers could only imagine.
Still, Washington makes use of some cinematic techniques. Through glimpses of a mid-1950s Pittsburgh (mostly from the back of the garbage truck he works on) he establishes context and backdrop. But what he’s most interested in are inner landscapes.
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Washington plays big-talking Troy Maxson, a former Negro Leagues baseball player whose career came too early for the integration of the major league. From his patchy, partially fenced backyard Troy holds forth (like any king from classical drama) on matters of life, love and the bitter concessions he has been forced to make.
Soon his story becomes suffocating and a means to justify his cruelty to those who have even less power in the world than he does, including his sons, wife Rose (Davis) and friend Bono, played by Kansas City, Kan., native Stephen McKinley Henderson.
It’s telling that throughout the film, Rose, played with a tender ferocity by Davis, is the one to soften the blows that Troy delivers. Until she can no longer stand to do it.
Ultimately it’s Rose’s speech, asking Troy, “What about my life?” that animates the story. She’s the moral compass, pointing to true north.
Though Casey Affleck of “Manchester by the Sea” is also a strong contender for best actor, it won’t come as a surprise if either Washington or Davis (hopefully both) makes the long walk up to the podium on Oscar night. But “Fences” deserves the honor, too.