One of the principal rules of storytelling, especially in a visual medium like film, is, “show, don’t tell”. I have never before seen a film so brazenly and successfully break this rule until now. Fences, a film about a working class black family in 1950’s Pittsburg, is a little over two hours of nothing but dialogue scenes set in the same location with every significant plot event happening off camera. Yet despite this decidedly non visual approach to the story, the film remains remarkably engaging. Director and star Denzel Washington along with co star Viola Davis carry this film purely on the strength of their respective acting talents.
Denzel Washington is particularly laudable for turning in such a remarkable self directed performance. He plays the lead character, Troy, and must therefore deliver the vast majority of the dialogue in what is already a very wordy script. Much of our screen time is spent on Troy telling stories about his past or recent conduct, stories that are mostly baseball metaphors. The result is that the full narrative thrust of the film is driven almost entirely by Troy, a rather contradictory character.
A simple man with a strong work ethic, Troy is the walking embodiment of traditional masculinity. Understandable? Yes. Relatable? Yes. Likable? Not particularly. He is the film’s protagonist, yet he is also the closest thing the film has to a villain. His inflated yet remarkably fragile ego coupled with a lifetime of abuses, misfortune, and discrimination conspire to make him a mercurial person. As the film progresses his conduct and choices erect barriers between him and the rest of his family, the titular “fences” if you will. Though we sympathize with him, we also realize that the familial trauma he endures, and the resulting alienation, is self inflicted. Though the nuance of the character is fascinating, he remains an abrasive lead, a fact which only highlights how impressive it is that the film is so engaging. Exclusively through dialogue, Denzel Washington keeps us mentally and emotionally engaged with the life of this character. It is a remarkable accomplishment.
Though the logistics of the film render Denzel’s contribution more impressive overall, in terms of raw emotional impact Viola Davis surpasses him. She plays Rose, Troy’s wife, the person who must endure the painful repercussions of his actions. The indomitable strength and passion which Davis lends to her character makes her a front runner for Best Supporting Actress. Her tearful breakdown in the second act is a powerful scene, one which reminds us that the women who stand in the shadows behind their men face their own unique set of challenges. To eschew one’s own hopes and dreams in order to live a life of domesticity and child rearing which is completely bound up in and dependent upon one’s husband requires it’s own sort of bravery. Rose is a testament to a decidedly female form of strength traditionally unique to the experience of womanhood.
In fact, the traditional gender roles exemplified by Rose’s relationship with her husband could be critiqued from a feminist perspective. Theirs is a traditional family unit, with Troy earning all the money while Rose tends the house and raises the kids. Much of the drama in the film is drawn from these characters pushing against the narrow roles in which they live their lives; trying to find breathing room in the box of their own identities. Rose struggles to find fulfillment in domesticity while Troy grapples both with the burden of being the breadwinner, and with toxic, narrow definitions of masculinity which force his interactions with his family into strained affairs fraught with a bravado and aggressiveness that ultimately alienates him from those he loves. Such a reading grants the exemplary performances in this film greater thematic weight, making Fences a minimalist, yet gripping and impactful candidate for Best Picture.