I’ve never considered Denzel Washington an actor so much as a star. Stars are performers who project their personality and beauty with such charisma that they render even the most mediocre projects appealing. Actors are performers who disappear into roles so completely that they capture essences that were not even written. Some stars are actors – surprisingly, in her later career, Julia Roberts has turned out to be both – but rarely do the two categories overlap. Washington may be one of the most powerful artists working today, but he’s only got one trick, and that trick is dominance. He plays such hero-martyr-mavericks as Malcolm X (an amazing Malcom X, to be fair) and boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Even when he’s bad, he’s the baddest bad guy, as in “Training Day,” when he portrays a mega-dirty cop, or in “Flight,” when he takes on the part of an alcoholic pilot who miraculously steers a mechanically faulty passenger plane to safety while blotto on cocaine, screwdrivers, and illicit sex. What we never see him play is a schlub, a man who misses more marks than he makes.
So it’s a welcome surprise to see Washington turn that “large and in charge” quality on its head in “Fences,” an adaptation of the 1985 August Wilson play about a working-class family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’s willing to depict a weak, complicated man here because he’s deeply invested in preserving the integrity of this Pulitzer Prize winner. Perhaps it’s because of his level of familiarity with the material, as both he and costar Viola Davis won Tony Awards for the same roles in a 2010 Broadway revival. Perhaps it’s because he’s also behind the lens; he’s still in control no matter how much underbelly he reveals. My guess is D, all of the above, but whatever the reason, the nuanced disappointment he and his cast channel in this film tells one of the richest stories of 2016 cinema. Continue Reading →