This strange film arrived in the UK over two months after its North American release. Between its Toronto festival appearance and its release, writer-director Dan Gilroy cut up to 15 minutes off its running time and ‘re-configured it’ – not usually a good sign (quote from this interview). It appears in the UK now, I suspect, mainly because Denzel Washington has been Oscar-nominated as the titular character. Although it’s a Sony/Columbia release, it’s actually the product of several small production companies with additional funding from ‘Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund’. There must be a story behind this. I’m clearly at a disadvantage here in not having seen Nightcrawler (2014), Gilroy’s earlier writer-director outing focusing on crime journalism. Gilroy suggests that Roman starts as the opposite of the lead character in Nightcrawler in terms of having a ‘moral compass’. I’m thinking that perhaps Denzel’s star performance and the many cultural references to African-American activism and problems with the law are not meant to be as central to the narrative as I want them to be.
The film’s reception has been very mixed. I went to the first local screening and I was the only person in the auditorium for what turned out to be a subtitled screening for ‘hard of hearing’ audiences – something I hadn’t picked up from the listings. I did wonder if it was simply an accident. Since I often struggle to distinguish the ‘realist’ dialogue of modern Hollywood, this was fine with me.
The story (as distinct from the film narrative which I won’t spoil) begins when Roman J. Israel arrives at his LA law office to discover that his ‘partner’ (I was never clear about the legal arrangement) has had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. Roman is the backroom legal wizard who never goes near an actual public court and when he finds himself attempting to deal with the day’s courtroom business we immediately discover why. His partner’s family decide to bring in a family acquaintance, hotshot city lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to wind up the current business and close the company which has been losing money for many years. Roman is taken aback and fears himself to be redundant but George later re-appears with an offer. In the meantime, Roman visits a ‘Civil Rights legal support group’ and tries to offer his services. It was this sequence in the trailer that first attracted me to the film. I won’t say any more about the plot as such.
I had assumed that this was a film with a strong interest in African-American culture and specifically in the problems affecting black youth in the Los Angeles district. In a way it is. Roman seems to still be living in the 1970s/80s. He sports an Afro, dresses in wide-lapelled, colourful but ill-fitting suits, listens to 70s soul and jazz, doesn’t drive (in LA!) and lives in an old apartment block surrounded by constant re-building. Roman presents as a man literally adrift from the modern world and still wrapped up in a world where researching and documenting the institutionalised racism of the US legal system is a very important part of activism. Contemporary gender politics is just one of the developments that have passed Roman by. Denzel goes the full hog on his appearance, apparently removing cosmetic work on his teeth and, I assume, wearing prosthetic jowls and extra padding on his torso.
What kind of story development did Gilroy have in mind? Many reviewers have described Roman as autistic, possibly with Asperger’s. We are back in the same territory as Newton (India 2017), though the two titular characters are quite different. The clues to Roman’s autism aren’t totally convincing – and anyway, it has been argued that many people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. It could simply be that after so many years working in the office, Roman is overwhelmed by being confronted with real live defendants. Because of his background in civil rights and as he terms it ‘revolutionary action’, there was a moment when I thought Roman was like Jeremy Corbyn – suddenly faced with the need to be pragmatic but still trying to hang on to the deep political commitment of ‘the struggle’. Corbyn negotiated the change of context and the need to change his own presentation. Roman eventually reacts in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m still wondering if the film is a satire on the US legal system or possibly of professional middle-aged African-American men. The last third of the film is very odd and I can understand why critics take against the development of some familiar genre tropes. I’m not sure what to make of it. Though the films are very different, there are some elements here that reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnificent but critically divisive Bamboozled (US 2000).
As well as Colin Farrell as George there is one other significant character, Maya, at the civil rights community legal centre. She’s played by Carmen Ejogo who I have now learned is a Brit and who previously appeared as the wife of Martin Luther King in Selma (2014). Again, I was not expecting her role in the story.
I think part of my problem with the film is that while US and English (as distinct from Scottish) legal systems have the same basis in English Common Law, the contemporary practise of law is different. I didn’t totally understand the importance of some procedures. I’ve read comments that the representation of US law practices in the film is not accurate but I don’t think that matters since it is the impact on Roman and his life that is the focus. The film looks very good (thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit) and I was intrigued by the new transit system which takes Roman to Santa Monica. The film also sounds good thanks to Roman’s choice of tracks to play on his headphones. I suspect that Roman J. Israel Esq. might flop in the UK, but who knows? I’d like to be able to read a diverse range of UK reviews. Most of Denzel Washington’s performances are worth catching and his Roman is one of the more intriguing ones.
Denzel Washington is an A List Hollywood star and has been for 30 years and he seems to have remained a potent star for longer than most of his contemporaries. To retain an African-American star image in Hollywood is not easy. Most successful Black actors in the US have tended to have careers that have seen them either restricted to certain types of roles in genre films or experiencing periods of great popularity in big budget pictures followed by periods of almost invisibility. Some have become identified with independent films or popular African-American films. Few have been able to span all these positions with the authority of a Denzel Washington. A reliable lead in mainstream Hollywood action films, Denzel has also made major contributions to African-American cinema, particularly in the Spike Lee ‘joints’ Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and He Got Game (1998): Inside Man (2006) is perhaps an example of both Lee and Washington exploring Black identities more indirectly. But even Denzel Washington struggled to get international distribution for his first two directorial efforts, both of which focused on African-American young men and women and their relationships with an older central figure (played by Washington himself). Antwone Fisher (2002) has several elements in common with Fences, now the third of Washington’s director-star productions. The second film, The Great Debaters (2007), was not to my knowledge released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. Interestingly, all three films have high ratings on IMDb despite some stinging reviews for Antwone Fisher. This suggests to me that the films have been appreciated by the audiences they were designed for. In the UK, African-American films generally have struggled to get distribution beyond a handful of major cities. The relatively ‘wide’ distribution of Fences is therefore something of a breakthrough.
Fences is an adaptation of a 1983 Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning stage play by the leading African-American writer August Wilson (1945-2005), one of a cycle of ten plays interpreting African-American lives in Pittsburgh with each focusing on a specific decade in the twentieth century. The play was successful on Broadway with James Earl Jones in the lead and was revived for further success in 2010 with Denzel Washington himself in the lead and Viola Davis in support. The two repeat their roles in the film adaptation and Davis has now won an Oscar for her performance. Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a garbage worker in 1950s Pittsburgh who is campaigning for driver’s jobs in the garbage collection service to be available for African-American workers. Davis is his wife and there are only a few other roles, all as members of Troy’s immediate circle. The stage origins are clear as Washington has decided not to ‘open out’ the narrative, nearly every scene being set in the backyard of the Maxson house where Troy takes many years to actually erect the ‘fences’ of the title. These are largely metaphorical and, as Troy’s close friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) points out, they are either designed to keep somebody in the household or keep others out.
Fences deals directly with questions about identity, rights and culture. It is similar in two ways to Antwone Fisher. (I have posted some notes on Antwone Fisher here, taken from an evening class in 2005 – they include a number of extracts from reviews and IMDb ‘users’.) First, at its centre is the story of the working class Black American, whose early family life remains as a scarring presence throughout later life. In the earlier film, Denzel is a navy psychiatrist trying to help the young and volatile sailor Antwone Fisher to overcome his problems and develop his real potential. In Fences, Denzel Washington as Troy is himself the victim of poverty in his southern childhood and the consequent problems he faces bringing up his own sons, and especially his second son Cory, are related to his childhood experiences and his later frustrations playing in the so-called ‘Negro leagues’ as a baseball star in the 1930s. (‘Major League’ baseball became ‘integrated’ in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson for the first time.) Secondly, in both films, Washington the director tends towards a seamless ‘Hollywood realism’ style, conventional for a family drama or in the case of Fences a stage adaptation. However, he also includes isolated scenes which work much more like fantasy. Antwone Fisher begins with a dream sequence in which a young Black boy is alone in a field of waving corn when suddenly he is invited into a barn where an enormous community feast is waiting and everyone is expecting him as guest of honour. The final scene of Fences is similarly fantastical and I’m not sure if its theatrical ‘effects’ were evident in the original Broadway production. Also in Fences, when the story moves forwards a few months or years, Washington the director sometimes allows the narrative to work through different visual modes as he sets up the transition to the next segment of the story.
There are two major question marks about Fences that might have prevented it succeeding. The first is Denzel Washington’s decision to retain the theatrical setting and to play the lead role himself. Certainly for the first third or so of the film it did bother me. So much of the narrative depends on Denzel’s delivery of long speeches in scenes which did feel like a filmed stage play. Secondly the play seems to work through the presentation of a limited number of African-American family types and to include all the expected narrative threads. The actors have to deliver performances that humanise the basic types. I think the burden on Viola Davis is very heavy. She is the only female figure on screen for much of the film. Though I’m never going to argue in any simplistic manner against a text which uses types in this way, I do worry that it might backfire in a play like this which has such a strong cultural purpose. Fortunately, I don’t think the film fails on either score. Because the players know each so well and because they are such talented performers, the ideas about the social, political and economic history of African-American life eventually shine through. By the end of the film I found myself very emotionally involved. Be warned also that Sanniya Sidney appears as the bright young child Raynell in the closing scene and the tears are bound to fall. I spent a little time trying to work out exactly when each scene was set and how this matched what was happening to the characters. I think that, apart from the emotions of the family melodrama, what struck me most forcefully was the ‘lived history’ of the African-American family. The narrative ends in the early 1960s with references to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The ‘story’ begins in the early 20th century with Troy as a child in the South (i.e. in the story he tells us). I’m conscious of the hardship and struggle over 60 years and the changes that did eventually come about. The story needs to be told again and again. The serendipity of the release of Fences alongside Hidden Figures and Loving is something to be celebrated and exploited.