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MOVING FROM METRICS: ‘Fences’ is beyond stars and numeral ratings of reviews past

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2017 is upon us and I find myself desperately wanting to abandon one of the longest held traditions of the movie review: using metrics. I’ve never been a huge fan of grading movies using math, and not just because it’s the subject I most consistently flunked throughout my academic career. Art and math very rarely align. Being forced to reduce a movie to an approximate value always feels like a chore. Nor do I like grading movies on a pass/fail mechanic. As if a motion picture is somehow susceptible to my whims: a stalwart gladiator in the coliseum fighting for my favor, only waiting to see if I decide if it should live or die. In order to liven these things up a bit, I’m going to be messing with the formula. Looking for new ways to help summarize my reviews for those readers too lazy to read all six paragraphs. First up, emojis.

BEAUTIFULLY BALANCED: Denzel Washington (above) directs and stars in film adaptation of ‘Fences.’ Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

BEAUTIFULLY BALANCED: Denzel Washington (above) directs and stars in film adaptation of ‘Fences.’ Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

I loved “Fences.” It’s an absolute heartbreaking piece of drama, beautifully staged and performed by an ensemble of great actors, headlined by two names synonymous with exceptional talent: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Based on the play by August Wilson, it depicts life of Troy Maxson (Washington) and his family during the 1950s. Troy is a fiery, passionate man. The kind of guy who sucks all the air out of the room whenever he enters. He’s quick with a joke and always has a story on deck ready to tell. There are two things he loves in life: baseball and his wife, Rose (Davis). We meet Troy as he deals with a work conflict; Black men are only allowed to collect the garbage and not be drivers. This conflicts with Troy’s sense of fairness and he has taken his complaints to the union head.

With every facet of Troy’s life, he talks a big game. We meet Rose as Troy entertains an old friend and coworker Bono (Stephen Henderson). Troy has indulged in some after-work drinking and tears apart the black baseball players who have made their first forays into the sport. Much like his issues at work, there are tiny fractures he hides on the surface that burrow deep into his soul. Perceived injustices that constantly have Troy facing off with the rest of the world. The more we get to know Troy, the more we are exposed to his anger, his fears, and ultimately, his hypocrisy.

His life has not been an easy one; marred by abuse, poor choices and children with different women. No matter how much he preaches the need for his children to own up to their choices, he is constantly running away from his own. Troy is a fascinating character, and one Denzel Washington inhabits like a man possessed. He is utterly captivating and brilliant in this role, in a performance that is easily among his best. It’s only matched by Viola Davis who perfectly balances Troy’s world-wary working man with Rose, who is trying to navigate through his struggles and provide love and support for every member of her family. Troy is not an easy man to love, but Rose is the mortar that holds the foundation of this family together.

It won’t surprise anyone that “Fences” was a play. Washington (who also directs the film), finds a pleasant urban backdrop to stage the story. It’s not particularly cinematic but does a great job of framing the narrative. “Fences” is ultimately an examination of melancholy. A half-dozen characters so impacted by Troy’s questionable choices and inability to express anything other than alcohol-fueled exuberance, or bitter teachings of a man who felt life owed him more than he received. At the film’s conclusion, we see those impacted by Troy and wonder if any of them were really better off for having him around.

I loved “Fences.” It’s a film brimming with interesting characters and a story of an unexplored corner of America’s past. The 1950s weren’t easy for black families, even in more progressive cities. Listening to Rose lecture Troy about the ever-changing world in the years before the Civil Rights Movement feels kind of odd in a day and age when our current social climate is so polarized. I imagine many of these words felt so hopeful to audiences who knew the times ahead would be difficult and yet provide much-needed gains. “Fences” is a fantastic movie and something worth seeing. In a year where I unabashedly loved very few movies, I’d be fine with something like “Fences” sweeping its way through award season.

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