Life Through the Lens: ‘Fences’ offers a raw portrait of a flawed family

“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”

If you are looking for a holiday romp, explosions and computer-generated robots, you are barking up the wrong tree (and maybe “going to the wrong movie” is the least of your concerns if you find yourself “barking up trees”). This movie is emotional, raw, and unflinching — it is a relational hurricane (my favorite kind of hurricane, by the way). Based on the play of the same name, “Fences” is eloquent dialogue over action, substance over flash.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a hard-working man; no one can say otherwise. He takes pride in his hard work. He takes pride in his fulfilled responsibilities. Set in the 1950s, Troy did the “best he could” as an African-American male, demanding what was justly his. No more. No less. He expected no handouts. He anticipated no help.

Troy was self-made and self-satisfying … but who could blame him? Abandoned and disappointed by his mother; abused and unwanted by his father, Troy did the best he could with the scars that he carried and concealed.

Troy was loved selflessly by his wife Rose (Viola Davis), through thick and thin … seemingly more thin than thick. She gave of herself and bent to her husband’s will, shelving personal wishes for spousal appeasement. The household also supported a son, Cory, preparing for college and potential football scholarships. The father’s love for the son was perceived as cold-maintenance — the son’s love for the father was perceived as spoiled entitlement. All love was lost between the two.

The movie is a lesson in giving and receiving. What you are given by your parents, and what is withheld by your parents. What you freely give to those around you, and what you selfishly deny to those you love. A man who was physically deserted by his father vowed to never do the same to his child, making responsibility his supreme concern. A woman who was emotionally alienated by her parents promised to never divide her love, holding tight to her family. A child who was yearning for fatherly approval swore he would run until he found it.

“Fences” is full of characters who feel shortchanged in their giving-and-receiving, each flawed in their understanding of the concept.

Washington does a miraculous job, never acting but, instead, revealing.  He is effortless and unaffected.  His portrayal of hurt, confusion, pride, misguided anger, love, and regret is honest and true.  Washington has never been better and, as I find myself saying most years, deserves attention and praise.  His time behind the camera as a director is much appreciated, as well — each scene simple yet effective. Viola Davis is quickly becoming a “sure-thing” with me — her performances are painfully sincere and, often-times, so real they hurt (especially her mucus-filled-crying scenes which instantly gross me out and engross me … out). Jovan Adepo as Cory is consistent and well-balanced.

The script is wonderful, adapted by the playwright himself. It is thought-over. It is pained-over. It is convicting in its emotion and relatable in its breadth. You will find yourself in each of the characters, sometimes with pride and sometimes with ashamed and downcast eyes. There are no bad guys — no good guys — only real guys.

Although the situations can feel engineered at times, the themes too assorted, the movie and its effect will stay with you for days. My thoughts continually returned to this man, this marriage, this family. Do I give enough? Do I allow myself to receive? Am I holding tight or building fences?