Your opinion of the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences depends mainly on whether you think Denzel Washington succeeds in the lead role of Troy Maxson, the embittered, restless trash collector from the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
There are so many aspects of Troy’s personality that the role requires an actor with substantial range. Since Denzel appears in nearly every scene, you have plenty of time to evaluate him. While not the perfect Troy Maxson, he brings the required intensity. Along with the superb supporting cast, that makes Fences a gripping drama.
Maxson’s difficult life is revealed in the course of the film. After killing a man in the course of a robbery, he was sent to prison for 15 years. Later, his friend Bono (the fine character actor Stephen Henderson) inspired him to play baseball, and he became a star in the Negro Leagues. Because of the color barrier, he never made it to the Majors, and that perceived injustice still eats at him.
Most of the film centers on the Maxson home, much of it in their backyard, where, appropriately, Troy and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) are building a fence. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) keeps a wary watch over them because of their constant conflict. With the close camera work in the confines of the limited sets, the intimacy of the play is recreated, as is the rawness of the emotions.
“Fences” is an all-pervasive metaphor. Fences keep outsiders from interfering in the family dynamic, but it pressurizes the Maxsons because they can’t escape, particularly Rose. There are barriers between them that Troy has built up. Because of his baseball experiences, he won’t allow Cory to play football, telling him it will never lead to anything. He won't help his son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a first marriage who wants to be a musician. Rose, despite her dogged love and support, is trapped by her husband's demands and anger. Only Troy is allowed any release, more and more frequently slipping away to bar that we never see.
Of course, there is the segregation of the era. Since Troy won’t allow himself to see that changing, he doesn’t believe he, or anyone, can overcome it. There is even an ironic baseball analogy: Troy was a good hitter, slugging balls over the fence; any thought of changing his current situation, or to swing for the fences, isn’t realistic.
The film hinges on Denzel’s portrayal of Troy. Although set in the 50’s, his dialect and facial expressions are sometimes exaggerated. Troy should have more sullen dignity, and Denzel seems, at times, to be hamming it up. Since he was also the film's director, he may not have had the perspective to dial this back.
Rose is a perfect role for Davis and she is a Best Supporting Actress nominee. In a brutal confrontation with Troy, her eyes streaming tears and her nose running, she cries out “What about me?” In fact, it’s the same question gnawing at Troy and Cory. All three are trying to overcome the fences that Troy and society have imposed.
Even with Denzel’s flaws as I see them, he does project a very vivid Troy and has been recognized as a Best Actor nominee. Along with the fine performances from Davis and the other supporting actors, Fences transcends its time and place to give the audience an intense experience and much to consider.
Coming out of this movie, you will say, like so many others, “Why have we never heard about this before?”
Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women who provided the data crunching and mathematical analysis for the early space program, That's right, the Mercury astronauts – Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn – that we all stopped class to watch on black and white TVs in grade school. These were the men whose images that we knew so well from Life and other magazines.
This movie has the common disclaimer that it is “based on true events,” and there are liberties taken for dramatic effect. The basic story that a group of black women who were in many cases mathematical prodigies worked as “computers” is true. They were “computers” because there were no machine computers that could handle that amount of data. They even used slide rules, the ultimate geek status symbol back then.
In this early 60’s era the space program was based in the near Virginia suburbs of Washington, D. C. The film focusses on three of the black women who are relegated to their own room in another building away from where the white, male scientists work. Their white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) gives them the numbers to crunch, and they crunch them - no questions asked. There is even a “Colored Only” bathroom.
Then the white launch team, led by Al Harrison (the familiar Kevin Costner), finds an equation they can’t solve. While delivering computations Katherine Johnson (the versatile Taraji P. Henson) goes to the black board and quickly finds the solution. Octavia Spencer, her usual wry, determined self, plays Dorothy Vaughan, the unofficial supervisor of the other "computers." Her strong but understated performance has earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. The third of the trio is the sassy Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, who NASA eventually sends to engineering school.
After proving her mathematical chops, Johnson alone is allowed in the room with the white scientists, all in short-sleeve, white shirts with skinny, dark ties, and she quickly becomes a star. Her main handicap is that she still has to race a quarter mile back to the colored bathroom. When Costner finds out, he bravely rips down the “Whites Only” sign in the main building. Whether this aspect of the story is literally true doesn’t matter. The symbolism adds momentum to the wave of delight you experience as these women overcome prejudice and skepticism to take their rightful place among the other NASA employees.
The actual story of how these women came to be assimilated into the space program transpired over many years from the late forties to late fifties, and NASA was actually desegregated in 1958. That this all occurred before the glare of the civil rights movement and the Mercury launches may account for why this story was never covered more substantially. Compressing the timeline into the early years of the space program dramatizes but doesn’t distort their incredible accomplishments.
So be glad you now do know about these amazing women. Their portrayal makes for a sharp, entertaining movie that is also joyful and uplifting – no doom and gloom or sex and violence. It is possible!