Thursday, 6 April 2017

Denzel Washington - Fences

Two time acting Oscar winner Denzel Washington has directed three accomplished and personal films: Antwone Fisher in 2002, The Great Debaters in 2007 and recently the Oscar nominated Fences in 2016. Here is my spoiler free appreciation of these three beautiful films.

Actor, Producer and highlighted here for the three films under his Direction, Denzel Washington has been a highly regarded stalwart of Hollywood for over four decades and with over 50 acting credits to his name up to March 2017, two Oscar wins and five further nominations, he remains a character actor that demands your attention and appreciation for he has continually produced performances that mark him as one of the very best actors of his generation. Whilst my blogs only concentrate primarily on Directors (and only the three films directed by Washington here), consider the incredible roles he has made his own in recent cinematic history: Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, Private Trip in Glory, Malcolm X, Joe Miller in Philadelphia, Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector and Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, all before the turn of the century. In the 17 years since he has also thrilled us with his portrayals as Alonzo in Training Day, John Creasy in Man on Fire, Frank Lucas in American Gangster and Tobin Frost in Safe House. These are particular favourite roles and performances of mine and however subjective this may be, there is no argument that a film can only be enhanced by the presence of Denzel Washington.

Three very personal Denzel Washington directed films follow whereby I've commenced each appreciation with a brief outline of the character portrayed by Washington, then a brief outline of the film. As with all of my film blogs (do feel free to delve into my archives!) it is never my intention to provide spoilers for the coming films, but rather my purpose is to give a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these superb cinematic creations.

Antwone Fisher (2002)

"Send him to the psychiatrist. Nigger wants to kill his master"

Dr Jerome Davenport Playing a Navy Psychiatrist in his directorial debut, Washington provides a pivotal supporting role to a thunderous performance from Derek Luke in the titular role of Antwone Fisher. Luke, in his debut feature length film role is truly captivating with a break out portrayal of the mentally and physically abused orphan Fisher and Washington in his directorial capacity cleverly propels him crashing into the early narrative with a beautifully elongated crane shot at the beginning of the film as we follow Fisher as a young boy through a wheat field and into a barn filled with happy, smiling adults before this dream state turns into a nightmare for the present day adult Fisher aboard ship in the United States Navy. A constant theme of dreams and nightmares are spliced throughout the story by Washington, highlighting the often traumatic upbringing endured by the younger Fisher and never more effectively than during their early psychiatric sessions in Dr Davenport's office. Reminiscent of the early scenes between psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) and Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in Gus Van Sant's iconic and Oscar winning 1997 film Good Will Hunting, Fisher is unwilling, or unable, to open up to Dr Davenport and simply preferring to watch the minutes of the session tick by on the office clock. With only three sessions at his disposal, Davenport (a la Maguire in Good Will Hunting) is willing to wait it out in a somewhat unconventional style before be pointedly remarks to Fisher "It's not what I want you to say. It's what you want to say". Fisher, constantly angry and full of festering resentment is in a permanent state of anxiety and following his repeated refrain of "I don't know what to do", Davenport's now Fatherly reassurance is simple: he must channel his passion and energy, and it's here that the film truly takes off and excels. The joint scenes between Washington and newcomer Derek Luke are a real joy at times, whether in the psychiatrist's office or an outstanding scene (framed brilliantly by Director Washington) peering into a jail cell or Fisher's heartrending reading of his poem "Who Will Cry For The Little Boy?" to Davenport on Thanksgiving.

Minor cameo roles abound with Salli Richardson sublime as Davenport's wife "Berta Davenport", Leonard Earl Howze as "Pork Chop", Kevin Connolly as "Slim", Novella Nelson as "Mrs Tate" and lastly Viola Davis as "Eva May". The most substantial cameo or supporting role falls to Joy Bryant in her excellent portrayal of "Cheryl Smolley", a somewhat mirror to that of Fisher with both awkwardly shy and timid, their burgeoning love story and joint scenes being another beautiful highlight of the film.

Written by Antwone Fisher himself and adapted for the screen from his autobiographical novel "Finding Fish", this is a brilliant directorial debut from Denzel Washington. The flashbacks employed really draw you into the narrative and combined with Derek Luke's phenomenal central performance and Washington's straight ahead and non showy direction, Antwone Fisher still remains a personal favourite of mine in the acting career of Washington as well as an accomplished first film behind the camera.

I'll end this brief review with a quote from Antwone Fisher that should resonate with writers of all kinds the world over:

"Life often has a way of making people feel small and unimportant. But if you find a way to express yourself through writing, to put your ideas and stories on paper, you'll feel more consequential. No one should pass through time without writing their thoughts and experiences down for others to learn from. Even if only one person, a family member, reads something you wrote long after you've gone, you live on. So writing gives you power. Writing gives you immortality"

Amen to that.

The Great Debaters (2007)

"An unjust law is no law at all"

Melvin B Tolson In his second directorial outing behind the camera, Washington portrays Melvin B Tolson in front of it in a powerful, outstanding and headline grabbing central performance. Set in the deep South of America in the town of Marshall, Texas post prohibition in 1935, Tolson is far removed from the racial stereotype of a black man of the times, a Professor at Wiley College he has a lilting, poetic and strident air of a man passionate about his work, life and a deep desire to teach and succeed as well as a lesser known interest, but equally passionate drive for reform and workers rights as a union organiser. Here he balances the difficulty between the segregated black and white world but in his primary role as a Professor at an all black College he is slightly unorthodox in his approach (leaping onto a desk in one of his earliest scenes), fervent about the beauty of the English language and of black history, combining both on many occasions in a brilliantly written screenplay and here "somehow black is always equated to failure. Well, write your own dictionary". Tolson is many things, Professor, Union Organiser, Civil Rights Activist and a man painted by Denzel Washington as singularly ploughing a road to follow and a man ahead of his time. Questioned as to his political leanings and accused of being a Communist, a Socialist and a Radical, his frustrated retort of "Jesus was a radical" betrays a fiercely beating heart and a man not to be crossed as he further exclaims in exasperation at a questioning student "Hell is where you're heading if you cross me again". Despite the horrific spectre and graphic instances of racism that pervades the film, no-one is heading to hell, but to Harvard University as the debating team he creates are on a history making win streak and on the verge of achieving the impossible and unthinkable.

Based on true events, an article written for the American Legacy magazine in 1997 and written for the screen by Robert Eisele, The Great Debaters is an often dry telling of real life events of the Wiley College Debating Team as they embark upon their historic winning run juxtaposed with the biggest hurdle the team of four debaters will come up against: racism. "Coloureds Only" benches and being patronisingly called "boy" are only the tip of a horrific iceberg of the bubbling and abhorrent racist backdrop to the film as we see horrendous graphic images of a lynching and someone being tarred and feathered just because of the colour of their skin. Racism leaves its mark throughout the film, as do the further hurdles the debating team need to overcome, of it's first female member or it's youngest ever member at just 14 years of age, but all encouragingly driven on by an inspired Professor who sees the value, the stoicism and the merit of his pupils and their undoubted debating skills. The youngest member of the team "James Farmer Jr" is brilliantly portrayed by Denzel Whitaker as an adolescent teenager coming to terms with life as well as the huge, looming shadow of his Father "James Farmer Sr", an absorbed and driven familial Patriarch and Preacher played superbly by the ever dependable figure of Forest Whitaker. The history making first female of the debating team is "Samantha Booke" who singularly moves to the College just to make the debating team and this strength of character and determination is excellently portrayed by Jurnee Smollett, with the third member of the team "Hamilton Burgess", played by Jermaine Williams in the quietest role of the four. The last member of the debating team is perhaps the most outspoken and the most affected by the divisions and racism that seep through the film, and it's a sublime performance from Nate Parker as "Henry Lowe" that rounds off this quite remarkable team.  

I had never seen The Great Debaters before commencing this blog and I'm thoroughly glad I started this love in of the great Mr Washington's directorial work and saw this for the first time. Should you be reading this blog and not come across this film in the cannon of Denzel Washington I thoroughly recommend you give this a try. The debating may be a little dry at times but it's enlivened by some majestic central performances as well as the historical context in which it sits and the debating topics themselves, be they the entry of black people into College, welfare reform or the rule of law. Often tense and brilliantly shot by Washington the Director, he also cleverly splices black and white cine style footage of the victorious team on their historic run as well as some beautifully authentic shots of the team "training" beside a lake or Henry and Samantha's private lake trip that injects vibrant colour just when the film needs it. The Great Debaters is an incredible story brilliantly realised by Washington. Highly recommended!


Fences (2016)

"Some people build fences to keep people out, and some people build fences to keep people in"

Troy Maxson In a relentless and powerhouse performance, Denzel Washington was Oscar nominated in 2017 for his portrayal of the driven and conflicted soul that is Troy Maxson. A loquacious and garrulous character and story teller, Maxson is a refuse collector in post World War Two Pittsburgh and now in his late 40's he continually reflects via his elongated stories on his shady youth, of defeating the "Grim Reaper" as a child and of his brilliance in the professional Negro Baseball Leagues. To his mind, there were only two better players than him in his day but he remains bitter at being passed up on account of the colour of his skin and both his resentment and antagonism at "the white man" or even occasionally "the devil" pervades his thinking. His stories, whilst captivating his audience as he holds court in the backyard of his home often betray a simmering anger at the world and despite his pre war professional success and post war hard work "I ain't got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of". Whether a rambling story or his views on school, race, family or more often than not, baseball, his word is absolutely final and this often cuts a shallow and selfish figure of a man who as the film progresses reveals an often unlikeable and reprehensible man. Interestingly, Maxson places a high value on "doing right by someone" and "respect" and as the film again progresses we see this evidenced in spades, yet not for the long suffering wife or the son who adores him and this dichotomy runs at the very heart of this conflicted man who turns everything into a baseball analogy, who pushes those closest to him the furthest away and whilst wanting love and respect has very little in the way of returning it. 

During my cinema going life I have had the very great pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington produce awe inspiring performance after performance, whether in Training Day, Glory, Malcolm X, Man on Fire or The Hurricane to name just a few, and his performance here as the conflicted, yet arguably man of his time Troy Maxson is one of the very finest of his career. Fences is also his greatest achievement to date as a Director and rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2017. From the film's very first frame until it's last, you can see the love and enthusiasm that has been poured into this film by Washington in what has previously been performed as a stage play and adapted here for the big screen by Washington behind the camera and based upon both a screenplay and original novel by August Wilson. The love with which the film is made is evident as is the reverential nature and respect from every cast member from the Director onward. What is also evident is the film's "motion" as the camera often flows from scene to scene smoothly and even though primarily set in three distinct settings (house, backyard or surrounding neighbourhood), Washington, with Editor Hughes Winborne and Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen engage you as the audience in these intimate, if rarely changing, settings. Both behind and in front of the camera, Fences really is a rare film that is entirely resplendent in the total sum of it's parts. With it's previous life as a stage play there are only ten credited characters in the entirety of this two hour plus film and even then only six should be considered major central or supporting roles, with Viola Davis outstanding and fully deserving of her Oscar win in 2017 for an Actress in a Supporting Role as Maxson's wife "Rose Maxson". A housewife and homemaker, Rose has been married to Troy for eighteen years, listened to his every story "Every time Troy tell that story he finds a different way to tell it" and where Davis excels as Rose is with her subtlety of slight touches, glances and looks as she listens in on yet another story or yet another complaint from her husband. Her role famously develops into a thunderous one equal to that of Washington, but the key to Davis' role is her engagement as a watcher and listener and Washington, in his role now as Director, captures this magnificently throughout. The Maxson family is a complex one with "Lyons" (Russell Hornsby) a son from a previous relationship but anything but his Father's son, preferring music and following his dreams rather than the hard work espoused by his Father and Lyons has a half brother "Cory" (Jovan Adepo) who in Lyons' regular absence picks up his Father's ire. In his feature length film debut, Adepo is stunning in his role of the put upon son Cory who simply only has eyes for his overbearing Father. He simply wants to follow in his Father's illustrious sporting footsteps and this is echoed by Rose's furious exclamation to Troy of "Everything that boy does he does for you" and considering the vaunted company he keeps here, and in his debut film, Adepo is superb throughout. Stephen Henderson excels (as he always does on film or TV) in his role of Troy's closest friend and co-worker "Bono" and it's to whom we go to for the tag line that begins my blog here and the truest and most apt quote for the film as a whole as well as a beaming light of smiling humanity in the film. Finally we have the brilliant Mykelti Williamson as "Gabe", brother of Troy and returning veteran of World War Two in a heartbreaking role displaying the true horrors of war and through him, a chink of compassion and love from his brother.

"That's all death is, a fast ball on the outside corner" so says Troy Maxson in yet another of the multitude of baseball analogies he employs throughout the film. Fences can be seen as a literal and metaphorical take on the barriers we all employ in our everyday relationships and Troy has so many to breakdown in a superlative film from both a true actor of his generation in a role he was destined to play and from a Director still learning his craft with an outstanding film for his generation. Fences is a gem of a film and very highly recommended.

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