Blog Directory CineVerse: Walls and bridges

Walls and bridges

Thursday, March 21, 2019

There just aren't enough quality movies that depict the African American experience, present or past, and that have been viewed and appreciated by audiences of all colors. However, one great example, and a recent one, is "Fences," directed and starring Denzel Washington. In one way, it plays as a different slant on the main protagonist and messages found in "Death of a Salesman"; in other ways, it's revelatory in its dialogue, characterizations and milieu and speaks to us from the past about things that continue to matter now and in the future. At CineVerse last evening, we breached this film's barriers and came away with these observations:

What did you find refreshing, different, unforeseen or satisfying about this film?

  • It’s a rare example of a high-profile mainstream Hollywood film featuring an all-black cast, helmed by a black director, and focused entirely on the African American experience.
    • Interestingly, while the characters occasionally talk about racial inequality and segregation, this film isn't really focused on racism or racial issues.
  • You don’t have to be African American to find truths in its story or appreciate the characters. These are situations, family dynamics, and personalities that many people can relate with and to.
  • This was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson; adapting a stagy, talky play for the big screen can often be problematic. But arguably the filmmakers pull it off by focusing on the strongly-written characters and dialogue, casting terrific performers, and not trying to be showy or clever with the camera or editing.
    • Film reviewer Odie Henderson wrote: “Since theater is an intimate medium, the general consensus on translating plays to screen is to “open up” the play, which quite often destroys the natural fabric of the work. The masterful thing about Denzel Washington’s direction here is that he doesn’t exactly open up the play. Instead, he opens up the visual frame around the players. He and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the entire screen to occasionally dwarf the characters inside the backyard setting where much of the film takes place. At other times, tight framing gives an air of claustrophobia that’s almost suffocating. Throughout, there’s clear evidence that careful thought has been put into the quiet visual architecture of this film.”
Themes infused in Fences
  • Visiting the sins of the father on the children. To what extent are we destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents or become an unwitting product of our environment?
  • How history shapes our future. Troy wants Cory to avoid the disappointments he encountered as a semi-pro athlete, but Cory’s future shouldn’t necessary be determined by a bygone past. Troy is holding Cory back because he invests too much significance in the past.
  • The challenges of African American manhood. Consider that many blacks suffer childhoods in which one parent—often the father—is missing; Troy lost his mother early on and left his abusive father behind. How will Cory and Lyons fare if and when their father is out of the picture? This movie depicts the coming of age struggles of black males in a difficult economic and social environment.
  • The literal and figurative barriers that either separate or contain us. Think about the building of the fence beyond the family’s backyard and how it impacts their lives and reflects each of their sensibilities; Rose sees the fence as keeping her family intact and safe, but her husband and son are reluctant to build it. The fence and its construction come to symbolize Troy’s dedication and loyalty to their relationship.
  • Baseball as a metaphor for life (three strikes, full count, etc.).
Other movies or works that this film brings to mind
  • The Great Santini
  • This Boy’s Life
  • Ordinary People
  • The Piano Lesson
  • Death of a Salesman
Other films directed by Denzel Washington
  • Antwone Fisher
  • The Great Debaters

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