22 Wednesday Feb 2017
What a great couple of months it’s been for movies about the African-American experience. The African-American Film Critics Association calls 2016 the best year ever for blacks in cinema. Fences, (2016, 78 metascore,) Hidden Figures (2016, 74,) Loving (2016, 79,) Moonlight (2016, 99,) 13th (2016, 90, a documentary), and just released, using the writing of James Baldwin, I Am not your Negro (2016, 96). Confirmation, and Birth of a Nation are both 2016 films also, neither collecting quite the accolades as those above.
Those I have seen are all fine movies, each speaking in a different voice and about different experiences, though all anchored in black reality in America, from the 1950s to today.
Fences, originally written as a stage play by August Wilson in 1983 and set in working class Pittsburgh of the 1950s carries its stage origins, both in the enclosed scenic space and in the dialog heavy script; dialog heavy but dialog powerful as well. Wilson’s ear for dialect and speech rhythms, along with an unflinching embrace of human contradictions, guarantees that. Denzel Washington, director and lead (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Dorothy Maxson) acted together in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, so the linkage of play and film are direct and visceral. Washington said in one interview, “It would have been impossible to direct and act in this, if we had not done the play.”
Troy sears the air with his anger and disappointments, tongue lashing his high school age son into permanent separation. Despite his friend Bono’s counsels, he takes his sense of aggrievement to another woman and to one of the most emotionally devastating filmed scenes of a woman’s hurt and anger I have ever seen.