Best Picture Oscar: Fences [2016]

Troy Maxson is a working class man just about to hit his declining years. He is gripped by a sense of discontentment that’s mirrored by each member of his family. As an absolute patriarch he clashes with his family over different perspectives, often sublimated into exaggerated parables and fables. Eventually he reaches a crisis moment, precipitating changes in everyone’s lives.

This film exists to showcase acting talent, living or dying on the ability of the key performers to engender the sympathy and empathy of the audience. It’s emotionally complex and dialogue heavy, betraying its origin as a stage play in virtually every shot. The film allows all its characters to eloquently advocate for their choices and their positions, declining to offer a judgement on any of the decisions they make – there are no bad or good decisions, just differing magnitudes of changes. Taken as a package, that makes the characters portrayed feel as real as cinema can offer, despite the perfection of their speech.  The actors take full advantage of this; Viola Davis in particular displays a supremely well-judged performance that includes both the grandstanding moments from the trailer and the most delicate conveyance of emotion that must be suppressed.

The trade off for this powerful focus on the family unit inside the family home is that the film feels myopic. It’s a film where the characters tell us an awful lot about themselves, without finding the time or space to show us. As a cinematic experience, it feels like too literal a translation, bringing the limitations of the stage into the new medium; with only a tiny handful of interjections from a voice-over narrator, the film could work as an audio-play perfectly well. It’s not quite from the Clint Eastwood school of pointing a camera at the actors and hoping for the best, but Denzel Washington displays no real directorial flair. I understand that he brought most of the Broadway cast with him to the film, in which case you’d almost have to argue that because the strength of this film is the performances, that Broadway director deserves the lion’s share of the credit, for getting those performances in the first place.

For all that it felt limited, it also felt perfectly confident and assured in what it was doing. The characters are compelling, fascinating even, and I was gripped throughout, never really anticipating the next development. I could definitely see myself re-watching this and trying to unpack some of the dense socio-political commentary. While this yet another film grappling with masculinity at the expense of fully exploring the problems of the sole woman in the film, it’s sophisticated perspective on a kind of masculinity that is under-represented in films: there aren’t too many major releases out about black working class men in the 1950s. I liked this film a lot, just perhaps not enough to award it the Best Picture Academy Award.

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