Fences – Movie Review by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

by August Wilson, Directed by Denzel Washington

When you go to see FENCES (and I urge you to go), don’t expect to see a movie.  Expect a play on the big screen.  Like those FATHOM EVENTS or the MET OPERA HD LIVE BROADCASTS in movie theaters.  August Wilson’s play is profound and when his writing is coupled with the actors’ close-ups, depths of character are on display. Still, it takes a bit getting used to.  The dialogue is poetic–musical and rhythmic with ideas and images that crackle and pop–but we’re just not accustomed to this much dialogue in movies these days. It’s a true “talkie.”  For all that, director / actor Denzel Washington wisely kept FENCES a play-on-film.  How else could he be true to the character he plays with such bravado: the extroverted, extremely chatty TROY?  Denzel insists we experience Troy as Wilson conceived him—larger-than-life, a grand stander who dances around his angst, hurt and despair to the tune of ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!  Yes, writer and director could have made this a more cinematic experience, and that would have been wonderful, too, but why deprive us of this language and the reality of characters who speak their way through life the way most of us do?

In more than a few ways, FENCES is an African American DEATH OF A SALESMAN although it’s not quite as tragic.  Its pathos is not as draining but it is deeply moving.  I think it’s because Troy is more likeable than Willy Loman (SALESMAN’S central character), and, as an African American in 1950’s and 1960’s USA, he is more complicated.  Troy has more phantoms, more layers of social oppression to navigate than Loman and August Wilson surrounds him with a set of less deflated, more earth-centered family and friends.   Troy’s devoted wife, Rose, has fire in her belly (Viola Davis –WOW!) and her decision to love (yes, friends, love is ultimately a “Decision”) brings rays of light into the proceedings.  Also: Troy’s son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo, a natural) has more going for him than Willy Loman’s sons.  The primary reason for that is Loman and sons lived in a fantasy world of Willie’s own making–his version of “The American Dream;” his misguided definition of “success.” In contrast, Troy, the patriarch of Wilson’s drama, has taken a very hard look at America and all the prejudices and limitations it imposes on African American life.  It is his blessing and his curse, his wisdom and his folly.  His tragedy is that he transmits his pain, intentionally and unintentionally, on his wife and son without ever transcending it.  Is it because he cannot or will not aspire to reclaim a different, richer dignity? The answer is “YES: to both.  Which is why Rose reaches a nobility her husband can only covet.  And that is sad, indeed, for unlike so many fathers who abandon their wives, girlfriends and children in search of some other kind of manhood, Troy takes responsibility for his family, extended family and friends.  His tragedy is that he is not fully present to the life he leads. Instead he indulges an undercurrent of resentment, chasing phantoms of release rather than being at ease in the stillness of sacred silence.  But we cannot judge him. He had had a moment of being on the cusp of greatness- a major league baseball career, for if not for social bias toward race, age and its obsession with youth (yes, even THEN), he could have been a contender.  And he, and we, live in a culture that values little else. God help us.

The power of FENCES—its situation and ideas, the faces of its characters—lingers profoundly long after watching it.  I guarantee your appreciation for the film will grow in the days and weeks ahead just as it has in the world’s response to Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN with which this photographed film has a strong affinity.  The play is alive with exciting performances of flawed but fascinating people who convey many truths about the nature of marriage, parenting, family and friendship.  I hope you will treat yourself to experience some of the depth of drive and feeling FENCES evokes—feelings we too often sublimate or eschew.    Of this much you can be sure: as you gather for celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and a Brand-New-Year, your investment in FENCES will offer you and your loved ones a great deal to talk about.

MOONLIGHT, a reflection and review

MOONLIGHT directed by Barry Jenkins; written by Jenkins from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

A Review by Fr. James DiLuzio CSP

 

Human nature and human sexuality are filled with mystery.

All cultures, all peoples, each society and every religion continue to mine the depths of what it means to be a person, a human being, a child of God.

The best of these entities strive fearlessly beyond the known and comfortable regions of the psyche and soul toward encounters with “The Other” -i.e., God Himself / Herself, but also with “others” whose lives, faiths and cultures are different from their own.  Think of Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek (Genesis 14: 17-24)  Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-27-8). 

When we encounter those who are different, those who are unique –yet always equally human, equally children of God–thoughts and feelings that may have been brewing inside our bowels seem to come out of nowhere and may make us feel uncomfortable. These feelings can generate fear, and because of fear, we may project hatred towards those whom we do not know or do not understand. We may feel compelled to mistreat them because we see in them manifestation of shadows within us: feelings we would navigate differently, choices we could but would not make; thoughts that otherwise would never have entered our minds.

It takes great maturity, confidence and humility to address those feelings without resorting to hate and prejudice, or worse, violence. It takes compassion and deep faith in God to scale the heights of knowledge that lead to understanding, to empathy and compassion. These are the challenges of our times and it is good to take every opportunity to address them.

“Moonlight” offers us this kind of opportunity.

It is an art film filled with pregnant pauses, lingering moments of silence, minimal dialogue and strong visuals that invite contemplation and soul-searching regarding our aesthetics and attitudes, prejudices and fears.

It is a character study that moves from the particularities of sexual identity (the film’s surface topic) into something universal – everyman’s need for acceptance and affection.

It is a coming-of-age story in which the actor playing the boy (nine-year-old Alex Hibbert) is reflected in the actor playing the adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and both are ever-present in the one who becomes the man (Trevante Rhodes) even though the younger actors have long left the screen.

This is not trick photography but the workings of the script, the director and the three major actors whose ghost-like presences permeate everything we see and hear — and each actor is phenomenal. Trevante Rhodes’ penetrating eyes and body language are particularly impressive in the ways they express the spirits of his younger selves. Watching him impresses upon us the knowledge that no matter our age or life’s circumstances, the child within remains with us always. “Moonlight” reminds us how the conscious and subconscious wounds of a child may only be reconciled to adulthood when the milk of human kindness is applied, i.e., when forgiveness reigns and self-acceptance and love abound.

It’s a beautiful message. A beautiful film.

For those who have not yet seen “Moonlight,” some more plot details:

This film looks at the life of a Black American coming into a gradual awareness of his sexual identity amidst poverty and its corresponding fears and despondencies. We meet Chrion (aka “Little”) at home and school where he is surrounded by fellow students who are equally unsure of who they are and what they truly feel, but who possess greater bravado and who seem to know (How do children know these things?) that one of their own is somehow “different.”

Yes, he is reticent to a fault, shy and self-conscious and likely to be scapegoated on those counts alone. And yet they sense something more about him — that this boy’s sensitivity has a sexual component he does not know he has and that this includes an attraction to students of the same sex. The film lets us sit with that — the confusion, the sadness, the violence and cruelty before it moves us into the next phase of important relationships.

Although the adults who teach in his school are mostly clueless, and the boy’s mother (an excellent Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, a compassionate drug dealer and his caring girlfriend take the boy under their wing. Played compellingly by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae, these two characters prove welcomed Good Samaritans whose empathy toward the boy evokes our own. And what a powerful statement is made as we watch a somewhat disgraced and compromised grown man claim his irrepressible dignity by fathering a boy so desperate for true fathering. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

From here on in, the film eases us through levels of understanding that lead to compassion and hope. And, in the final scenes, when the adult Black encounters the adult Kevin (another character played chronologically by three terrific actors (nine-year-old Jaden Piner, 16-year-old Jharrell Jerome, adult André Holland) we realize we have been greatly privileged to have entered into this story. And, we just may be — if we are humble enough, honest enough, courageous enough — more fully human.


Paulist Fr. James DiLuzio is a member of our preaching apostolate, leading parish missions and retreats across the United States. He is the creator of “Luke Live.” 

– See more at: http://www.paulist.org/the-conversation/brewing-inside-film-review-moonlight/#sthash.yLgNUNd1.dpuf